Meh, not her best, and I am a Tyler fan. The first half of this, her latest novel, was typical Tyler–easy and recognisable descriptions of everyday life. The second half was predictable and bland. Julie Myerson from the Guardian says it best, “The Baltimore author’s 22nd book has familiar comforts, but lacks narrative drive.”
Willa has always let life happen to her. We see Willa in the novel at ages 11, 21, 41, and 61. One day she receives a phone call and flies across the country to help someone she has never met and isn’t even related to. This impulsive decision is, of course, the catalyst to examining her own life and choices (or lack thereof).
The novel starts strong with Willa and her friend trying to sell chocolate bars for charity in the neighbourhood. The angst around knocking on doors brought me right back to my own childhood, which is what this author does best. Later there’s an odd scene about a man threatening Willa with a gun on an airplane that flirts with danger and intrigue, but soon deflates like a popped balloon and leaves Willa once again seeming weak and wimpish–a brilliant point made about Willa, however, after that, lively scenes disappear altogether and the novel flatlines. Even the conclusion which should have been ground breaking and earth shattering (since her whole life had been leading up to this point) sadly lacked luster. Oh well, it’s not unusual to enjoy some books from a favourite author less well than some others–this, is just that.
Anne Tyler is one of the greatest family chroniclers of our time. Her genius is in the way she tells the story, finding the nuance, and beautifully describing the emotional complexity in family relationships. Her novels are full of the humour, the secrets, the struggles, and the joys of everyday events…the stuff of our lives. It is easy to get immersed in her novels, assuming you like novels about family, that is. She gives her work a humorous touch and yet captures the tragic as well. It is not uncommon with Tyler to laugh one moment and be surprised by tragedy the next–only a novelist with a complete command of her material can achieve that so well.
This one is about the house as much as the family that lives in it. I loved the way Tyler describes how it was built, how they got possession of it, how it was lovingly cared for, and how Red and Abby and two other generations of Whitshanks grew up in it.
There has been a lot of speculation about whether this is her final work. She told the BBC she might not finish another, but that she would keep on writing. If this is her final one, then she has ended on a high note, although this was not my favourite of hers (Ladder of Years still has that spot). I do hope it advances to the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 shortlist because it would be great for her to receive one more honour after giving us so many great novels, 20 in all. As I move on to another Baileys’ long listed book, my personal vote for the winner so far, would still be for either Elizabeth is Missing or Station Eleven.
Anne Tyler is one of those great authors whose books you can just pick up and enjoy. Her books are mostly about family and messy relationships. Her characters are vividly drawn without a lot of description, which is always refreshing. You feel like you could meet these people on the street – or even in your own family – and know them. Not a lot happens in this novel, no major twists and turns, it’s just the understated events of three generations and a marriage under the microscope. Tyler plays with the question of what makes a good marriage? Can it survive the test of time and hardship and tragedy and perhaps even divorce? Michael and Pauline seemed like the perfect couple to others, but underneath lies the reality that they are really quite mismatched. But is that bad? Most married people would say that they are quite opposite in a lot of ways. A ‘successful marriage’ is a mystery that Tyler doesn’t attempt to solve, leaving it to the reader to draw the conclusions (although I do believe she hints at her own opinion of Michael and Pauline’s marriage at the end).
‘Amateur’ first struck me as a strange word to use to describe marriage. We use adjectives like: committed, failed, arranged, mixed, etc. Amateur is defined as being engaged in an activity like sport or photography on an unpaid basis. But can a marriage be professional? And then I learned that the word amateur comes from the Latin word ‘amare’ – to love, in other words a ‘lover of’.
Tyler has written more than a dozen books, some of which have been made into film adaptations. My all-time favourite of hers has to be Ladder of Years. It’s about a mother who does what every mother has probably thought of doing, but never has actually done. One day on vacation with her family, she simply walks away down the beach and doesn’t return. She gets on a bus, heads to another town, and begins a new life with a new identity where she feels that she is more than a “bee buzzing around the edges” of her husband and children. After this shocking casting off all responsibility, it is so interesting and surprising to see what she actually does with her new life!