Anne Tyler’s ‘The Beginner’s Goodbye’: Widower keeps running into his late wife

March 27, 2012

The opening line of Anne Tyler’s 19th novel is self-consciously clever: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” For a few pages, “The Beginner’s Goodbye” sounds like the sort of droll story Jose Saramago might write if he lived in Baltimore. But Tyler drops the spectral comedy almost immediately and returns to Earth with another wry tale of mournful folks with quirky occupations. In other words, it’s like the ghost of an Anne Tyler novel — a little immaterial but with enough residual matter to remind us of what we love about her books in the flesh.

Not that we see much of Tyler in the flesh. The 70-year-old Baltimore writer, who was raised as a Quaker, isn’t a Thomas Pynchon-style recluse, but she’s grown far more media-shy than most best-selling authors who bring out a book every two or three years. No glad-handing on the bookstore circuit for her, no chatty Facebook page, no bons mots over Twitter. On Friday, the author will give what’s being billed as her first broadcast interview in 35 years to NPR.

The timing of that rare appearance is odd. Fans who remember the author’s wonderful “Saint Maybe”; “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and “Breathing Lessons,” which won a Pulitzer in 1989, will have to concede that “The Beginner’s Goodbye” is one of Tyler’s minor novels, along the lines of “Noah’s Compass” from 2010.

The narrator, Aaron Woolcott, works as an editor at his family’s vanity press, which publishes the “Beginner’s” series, “something on the order of the ‘Dummies’ books,” he tells us, “but without the cheerleader tone of voice — more dignified”: e.g., “The Beginner’s Colicky Baby,” “The Beginner’s Monthly Budget,” “The Beginner’s Spice Cabinet.” It’s 2007, but the Internet has passed over Woolcott Publishing, which glides along in this model-train version of an American city that looks closer to Mayberry R.F.D. than to the largest city in Maryland.

If the economic and cultural details seem quaint and artificial, Tyler’s ability to survey the emotional terrain of grief remains sharp. This is, of course, a subject she’s explored before, most famously in “The Accidental Tourist,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the basis for the movie starring William Hurt, but here the approach is more gentle, even wistful. Aaron’s marriage to Dorothy, a doctor eight years his senior, came to an abrupt end a few months earlier when a tree fell on their sun porch and killed her. They had just finished bickering about Triscuits.

In the slim story that follows, well-meaning relatives and colleagues tiptoe around Aaron or irritate him with platitudes — the sort of awkwardness that anyone who’s suffered a loss will recognize. Indeed, Tyler’s husband of more than 30 years, Iranian-born psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi, died in 1997, and one senses in the sad comedy of Aaron’s bereaved social life a certain amount of the author’s personal experience. The neighbors bring food he doesn’t want to eat — “some kind of curry” — and he catches himself resenting the way everybody looks “so robust, so indestructible.” He flops around as we all do, horrified at both the persistence of ordinary routines and the tenacity of sorrow: “I felt as if I’d been erased.”

What’s most interesting about “The Beginner’s Goodbye,” though, is the way Aaron’s grief becomes complicated by a franker understanding of his own marriage. Memories of just how prickly they were together punctuate his aching affection; defensiveness creeps into his voice. “My eyes worked so hard to summon her up that they were practically knitting her,” he says, but we also hear of “little glitches,” tiresome disagreements that used to send them into separate silent corners of the house.

Dorothy rarely took off her white coat, and he could be impatient with her clinical detachment, though he admits, “I . . . had deliberately chosen a non-caretaker for my wife. . . . Her matter-of-fact attitude, her avoidance of condescension. That was the Dorothy I’d fallen in love with.”

Avoidance of condescension seems like an unlikely spark of passion, but it’s at the heart of Aaron’s odd personality. Crippled on one side by a childhood illness, he’s spent his life fending off assistance he doesn’t want from his mother, then his sister, then various young women playing out savior fantasies with “gimpy, geeky Aaron.” A frumpy, older doctor who smelled of “isopropyl alcohol and plain soap” and never made a meal in her life was the perfect mate. But now all those years of pushing everyone away have made him suspicious of ordinary kindness and, in this time of tragedy, a particularly difficult person to comfort.

I hate to say it, but he’s also a particularly difficult character to believe. I’ve read most of Tyler’s novels, and I can’t remember meeting anyone quite so off-key as this narrator. The strange way Aaron moves and speaks has less to do with neurological damage than with the calcifying conventions of the author’s canon. (When Dorothy asks, “I don’t understand. Why does this have to involve food?” someone should have told her, “Because you’re in an Anne Tyler novel.”) Nothing about him suggests we’re in the company of a 35-year-old in the early 21st century; he seems dustier than the 60-year-old in “Noah’s Compass.” “That tickled me no end,” he tells us when he hears Dorothy talking. Confronted by an angry colleague, he exclaims, “Goodness.” Seeing his dead wife standing in the street, he says, “Dorothy, my dear one. My only, only Dorothy.” How she returned from beyond the grave isn’t as hard to fathom as how Aaron escaped from Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” Even die-hard fans of Tyler’s work should probably let this one float by.

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.

THE BEGINNER’S GOODBYE

By Anne Tyler

Knopf. 198 pp. $24.95

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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