Making my way through The Beginner's Goodbye, the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler, I found myself thinking about Baltimore, Md. Not the Baltimore that is, traditionally, Tyler territory, a quasi-bucolic outcrop of lawns and trees and neighbours who, on the whole, tend not to be drug lords or addicts or hookers; rather, the Baltimore of The Wire, the now-defunct HBO crime drama that gave us a bullet-riddled, blood-spattered, boarded-up dystopia so beyond bounds that the very notion of probity became suspect.
Same city, parallel universes.
The novel, Tyler's 19th, begins with a dead woman returned to life. Or at least to the anxious psyche of Aaron Woolcott, the bereaved widower of the revenant, whose name was Dorothy. Dorothy died when the oak tree near their house, which they were assured was sound, and wouldn't cause much damage in falling if it weren't, wasn't, and did. She went instantly – the tree bisected the sun porch – and Aaron, childless, is left to pick up the pieces, literally and figuratively. He gets help with the former via a contractor named Gil (who, if he existed in real life, would be the most popular man on the planet), and from his elder sister, with whom he moves in, the two of them sharing their parents' old house. But with the latter.…
Aaron and his sister run the family publishing house, really a vanity press the fortunes of which rest on their beginner's guides, a series of Dummies-like books that operate on the theory that “anything is manageable if it's divided into small enough increments.” (Hence, for instance, The Beginner's Spice Cabinet, or, for those presumably more in need, The Beginner's Cancer; hence, too, Tyler’s title.) His co-workers, like his neighbours, try to express their sympathy, but Aaron, prickly and impatient, bats them away, interpreting such overtures as condescending, or smothering.
It was the absence of such perceived cosseting that drew him to Dorothy, a blunt-speaking doctor eight years his senior. They met and married within four months – he was 24 – and stayed married for what Aaron labours to persuade us were eight happy years. Like much in this troubled novel, we must take it on faith, for otherwise the attraction would be virtually incomprehensible: The Dorothy who emerges in Aaron's memories is as charmless as she is obtuse. (“I'm not hungry” is her brick wall of a response to Aaron's nervous, but gracious, first invitation to lunch.)
But then, Aaron himself is no slouch in the obtuseness department, though in his case we might charitably call it denial. Yet denial as a coping strategy on the part of a character is one thing; denial on the part of the author is … what we seem to have here. (Though is it authorial denial or editorial oversight that allows Aaron, who we are told was crippled by a childhood illness, nevertheless to be a keen racquetballer? One, moreover, whose co-workers suggest he take up rock-climbing or hang-gliding to distract himself from his grief?)
By the midpoint of the book, Aaron is ensconced in his childhood home, his childhood room (“It was exactly as I left it when I went away to college”), and finding the whole experience surprisingly congenial. “Living in this house again was not half bad, really,” he thinks. “In a way it was kind of cozy.”
Yes, it is cozy. The whole novel is cozy. It is cozy to the point of bafflement. It is as if we are stuck in a time warp. The characters use Old Spice, say “Gee,” have cousins named Abner and, apparently, wear crinolines (“I didn't think you could buy crinolines anymore,” thinks Aaron, as his secretary rustles by: me either). When, at last, I came across a reference to “helicopter parents” – finally, a suggestion of contemporary life! – my entire body relaxed, as if I'd unknowingly suspended breathing in the rarefied atmosphere of this quaint bell jar.
No one is asking that novels be political, moral or socioeconomic tracts. But it does seem to me that, in those we're asked to take seriously, some acknowledgment of life as we have known it is called for, or what we have is Disneyland. (The world of The Wire, brutal and bleak as it was, was a breath of fresh air in comparison.)
I think Tyler fans – and they appear to be most of the known universe – will find just what they are looking for here, and won't be dissatisfied with what they find. Loose ends are tied, very tightly indeed; tied with a pretty pink bow. But when, near the end, Aaron announces, “I wanted the jolts and jogs of ordinary life. I wanted realness, even if it was flawed and pockmarked,” I know just how he feels.
Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto editor and writer, frequently reviews for Globe Books.