Before anything else I must speak of awards. I’m so excited because my favourite book award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced its 2020 winner last night and it was the only book from the shortlist that I had read and I loved it: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. For my recent review of this beautiful book, click here. It was up against some heavyweights like Hilary Mantel’s third instalment in her Thomas Cromwell series (the first two in the series were Booker winners and the third is on the long-list this year too, sheesh!)
Now when we look at the Booker Prize 2020 long-list (shortlist to be chosen next week) we see Hilary Mantel’s brick of a historical novel, but we also see beside it this quirky slim new novel by Anne Tyler. She is one of my favourite authors but I never expected to see her among the award selections until A Spool of Blue Thread made it onto the Booker long-list in 2015, and now Redhead by the Side of the Road in 2020. Tyler is one of my favourite authors and I appreciate her unpretentious style, but are her novels award material? She did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for Breathing Lessons and to be honest, I am always complaining that award winners are so literary focused that they become unreadable. So yes! Tyler deserves a seat at the table and I will cheer her on for writing approachable novels that have depth and capture humanity. She has a way of making the ordinary come alive…sort of subtle extraordinary, really.
I did love this book, it felt like an undemanding comfort read during this challenging season on the planet. The dialogue is fresh and the main character’s simple lifestyle well described. It’s also surprisingly short (less than 200 pages) and almost reads like a novella. Here is the premise, and even though it may seem at first glance to be like The Rosie Project, it is very different–more profound and realistic.
“Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. A self-employed tech expert, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building, cautious to a fault behind the steering wheel, he seems content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his routines are blown apart when his woman friend (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”) tells him she’s facing eviction, and a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah’s meticulously organised life off-kilter, risk changing him forever. An intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just out of reach, and a funny, joyful, deeply compassionate story about seeing the world through new eyes.”
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!