Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, April 30, 2006
DIGGING TO AMERICA
By Anne Tyler
Knopf. 275 pp. $24.95
The appearance of a new novel by Anne Tyler is like the arrival of an old friend. And if you have an old friend, you know that such meetings don't always deliver anything new. It's mostly updates, the pleasure of reciting inside jokes, revisiting familiar legends and only then, possibly, the promise of some fresh development. But who's peevish enough to complain about the limits of a reunion? Everyone who has a favorite Tyler novel (mine's Saint Maybe) jumps on the latest one, in part, to rekindle that connection with this warmhearted author who can appreciate the humor and sadness of our idiosyncrasies. If there's something naggingly small about her range (Baltimore, quirky family, intricate meals), we're willing to make allowances. After all, who can keep Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley straight? Didn't Thoreau claim, "I have traveled much in Concord"? And Baltimore is way bigger than Concord.
But now it's time to put that defensiveness aside. With her 17th novel, Tyler has delivered something startlingly fresh while retaining everything we love about her work. Digging to America delivers the blithely insular, suburban Baltimore characters we expect, but it's a bait-and-switch move. In a daring expansion of Tyler's range, the people who are really at the heart of this novel come from Korea, China and Iran. Tyler was married to Iranian-born psychiatrist Taghi Mohammad Modarressi from 1963 until his death in 1997. Although she keeps her personal life closely guarded, her exposure to Iranian culture through him must have animated the spirit of this novel. Her success at portraying culture clash and the complex longings and resentments of those new to America confirms what we knew, or should have known, all along: There's nothing small about Tyler's world, nothing precious about her attention to the hopes and fears of ordinary people.
The novel opens at the Baltimore airport in 1997. Brad and Bitsy Donaldson and an entourage of camera-wielding friends and relations are awaiting the arrival of their adopted baby daughter from Korea. Off to the side of this raucous group stand "people no one had noticed before . . . a youngish couple, foreign-looking, olive-skinned and attractive." It turns out that Sami and Ziba Yazdam are also waiting for an adopted baby daughter from Korea, and when the Donaldsons become aware of this happy coincidence, they introduce themselves to the shy Iranian-American couple. Two weeks later, Bitsy tracks Ziba down to see how things are going. A few months after that, Bitsy invites the Yazdams to the Donaldsons' annual leaf-raking supper. The two couples become fast friends, and each year they throw an enormous party to celebrate their daughters' arrival in the States. These annual get-togethers -- complete with competing meals, the original airport video and a theme song ("She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain") -- serve as the novel's structure, our chance to check in on the development of two very different families over the years.
Bitsy is a marvelous creation: the tireless, culturally sensitive super-mom (cloth diapers, organic food, anything expensive and inconvenient). Sami quietly resents her advice and critique ("You put your daughter in a playpen?"), but his wife, Ziba, eager to do the right thing, to blend in, to be American, is mesmerized by her energetic opinions: "You notice I'm wearing black and white," Bitsy tells Ziba. "That's because babies don't see colors. Only black and white. I've worn nothing but black and white from the day that Jin-Ho arrived."
While the Yazdams immediately change their daughter's name from Sooki to Susan, the Donaldsons couldn't be more pleased with their daughter's chic foreignness and do everything they can to celebrate it. They read her only Korean folk tales. They dress her in a kimono with a pointed hat and little embroidered shoes. "You might want to give her soy milk," Bitsy advises Ziba. "Soy is more culturally appropriate." Tyler's subtle wit gets these ironies just right: The Iranian immigrants must wrestle with when to assimilate, when to resist, while their white-bread friends carry on about how much they love ethnicity. She's particularly good at conveying the wry humor these Iranian-Americans use to endure numerous little slights from their well-intentioned but condescending white neighbors.
Sami's mother, Maryam, finds the Donaldsons' enthusiasm for all things foreign particularly annoying. Hearing that her son and daughter-in-law plan to cook a big Iranian meal at the next annual Arrival Party, she thinks, "Why should they have to put on these ethnic demonstrations? Let the Donaldsons go to the Smithsonian for that!" An American citizen for 31 years, Maryam grew up and studied in Iran until her wealthy family whisked her out of the country when she joined a group of radical students who opposed the shah. Now widowed, in her sixties, she's a model of conservative self-sufficiency, working part-time at a local school and caring for her son's adopted daughter, determined never to interfere or cling. She's "happy to be on her own, grateful for the quietness and neatness of her life."
She's not the flashiest or funniest character in this novel, by far, but gradually she becomes its focus, and she's fascinating because Tyler catches all the subtle contradictions buried beneath her stoic exterior. (There's something very reminiscent of Anita Brookner's novels here.) Maryam is troubled by her son's satiric cracks about Americans: "So instantaneously chummy they are, so 'Hello, I love you,' so 'How do you do, let me tell you my marital problems.' " Sami's friends think he's hilarious, but he sounds disturbingly ungrateful to her: "Where would you be without this country?" she asks him. "You take it for granted, is the problem." And yet, Maryam complains, "Americans are all larger than life. You think if you keep company with them you will be larger too, but then you see that they're making you shrink; they're expanding and edging you out."
Still, she can't shake that desire to belong, to overcome her state of confirmed "outsiderness." Even after 31 years, she confesses, "It's a lot of work, being foreign." And here is Tyler's most skillful move: Without in any way diminishing the barriers of culture or discounting the offenses and disappointments on all sides, she manages to universalize Maryam's plight, to demonstrate that "we all think the others belong more." Maryam must consider that her sense of dislocation is a side effect not just of being an immigrant but of being human. She realizes, finally, how stubbornly she's clung to her outsiderness, reinforced it and emphasized it at the cost of her own happiness. Almost any other novelist who could reach this state of exquisite despair would leave us there, but don't worry: We're in Tyler's Baltimore, which, it turns out, is big enough to embrace us all. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.