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.