Friday, January 08, 2010

Friday Fiction: Anne Tyler, Accidental Tourist Into Ordinary Lives

--by Hanje Richards

Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, was published in 1964 and her most recent, Noah’s Compass, in 2010. In 1994, Tyler was nominated “the greatest living novelist writing in English” by Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Like many readers of Anne Tyler, I first discovered her when Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was published. Since that time, I have read most of her earlier novels and all of them published since, except her very latest novel, Noah’s Compass, which came out this week.

Noah’s Compass - A wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with the final phase of his life.

Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn’t bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new, spare, and efficient condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is sore and bandaged.His effort to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him leads him on an unexpected detour. What he needs is someone who can do the remembering for him. What he gets is – well, something quite different.

Accidental Tourist - The story of a travel-hating writer of travel books, Macon Leafy, who systematically avoids adventure...until he meets the frizzy-haired, stiletto-heeled, astonishing Muriel (she's trying to train his unmanageable Welsh corgi, Edward), who up-ends Macon's world and thrusts him into engagement with life. Anne Tyler's most famous bestseller, Accidental Tourist was awarded the
National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986.
Amateur Marriage - They seemed like the perfect couple – young, good-looking, made for each other. Pauline, impulsive, impractical, tumbles hit-or-miss through life; Michael, plodding, cautious, judgmental, proceeds deliberately. But, while other young marrieds, seemed to grow more seasoned, Pauline and Michael remain amateurs. In time, their foolish quarrels take their toll. Even when they find themselves loving, instant parents to a little grandson named Pagan, whom they rescue from Haight-Ashbury, they still cannot bridge their deep-rooted differences.

Back When We Were Grownups - The woman is Rebecca Davitch, a fifty-three-year-old grandmother. On the surface, Beck is outgoing, joyous, a natural celebrator. Giving parties is, after all, her vocation – something she slipped into even before finishing college, when Joe Davitch spotted her at an engagement party in his family’s crumbling nineteenth-century Baltimore row house, where giving parties was the family business. Soon this large-spirited older man, a divorced father with three little girls, swept her into his orbit, and before she knew it, she was embracing his extended family plus a child of their own and hosting endless parties in the ornate, high-ceilinged rooms of “The Open Arms.” Now, some thirty years later, after presiding over a disastrous family picnic, Rebecca is caught unawares by the question of who she really is.

Breathing Lessons - Maggie and Ira Moran have been married for twenty-eight years – and it shows: in their quarrels, in their routines, in their ability to tolerate with affection each other’s eccentricities. Maggie, a kooky, lovable meddler and an irrepressible optimist, wants nothing more than to fix her son’s broken marriage. Ira is infuriatingly practical, a man “who should have married Ann Landers.” And what begins as a day trip to a funeral becomes an adventure in the unexpected. Received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989.

Digging to America - Two families who would otherwise never have come together meet by chance at the Baltimore airport – the Donaldsons, a very American couple, and the Yazdans, Maryam’s fully assimilated son and his attractive Iranian wife. Each couple is awaiting the arrival of an adopted infant daughter from Korea. After the babies from Asia are delivered, Bitsy Donaldson impulsively invites the Yazdans to celebrate: an “arrival party” that from then on is repeated every year as the two families become more and more deeply intertwined.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant - Through every family run memories which bind it together – despite everything. The Tulls of Baltimore were no exception. Abandoned by her salesman husband, Pearl is left to bring up her three children alone – Cody, a flawed devil; Ezra, a flawed saint; and Jenny, errant and passionate. Now as Pearl lies dying, stiffly encased in her pride and solitude, the past is unlocked along with its secrets. A finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1983.

If Morning Ever Comes - Ben Joe Hawkes is a worrier. Raised by his mother, grandmother, and a flock of busy sisters, he's always felt the outsider. When he learns that one of his sisters has left her husband, he heads for home and back into the confusion of childhood memories and love.

Ladder of Years – “Baltimore Woman Disappears During Family Vacation,” declares the headline. Forty-year-old Delia Grinstead is last seen strolling down the Delaware shore, wearing nothing more than a bathing suit and carrying a beach tote with five hundred dollars tucked inside. To her husband and three almost-grown children, she has vanished without trace or reason. But for Delia, who feels like a tiny gnat buzzing around her family's edges, "walking away from it all" is not a premeditated act but an impulse that will lead her into a new, exciting, and unimagined life.

Morgan’s Passing - Morgan Gower works at Cullen's hardware store in north Baltimore. He has seven daughters and a warmhearted wife, but as he journeys into the gray area of middle age, he finds his household growing tedious. Then Morgan meets two lovely young newlyweds under some rather extreme circumstances – and all three discover that no one's heart is safe.

Patchwork Planet - Barnaby Gaitlin has been in trouble ever since adolescence. He had this habit of breaking into other people's houses. It wasn't the big loot he was after, like his teenage cohorts. It was just that he liked to read other people's mail, pore over their family photo albums, and appropriate a few of their precious mementos.

But for eleven years now, he's been working steadily for Rent-a-Back, renting his back to old folks and shut-ins who can't move their own porch furniture or bring the Christmas tree down from the attic. At last, his life seems to be on an even keel.

Still, his family cannot forget the price they paid for buying off Barnaby's former victims. And his ex-wife would just as soon he didn't ever show up to visit their little girl, Opal. Even the nice, steady woman who seems to have designs on him doesn't fully trust him, it develops when the chips are down, and it looks as though his world may fall apart again.

Saint Maybe - In 1965, the Bedloe family is living an ideal, apple-pie existence in Baltimore. Then, in the blink of an eye, a single tragic event occurs that will transform their lives forever – particularly that of seventeen-year-old Ian Bedloe, the youngest son, who blames himself for the sudden “accidental” death of his older brother.Depressed and depleted, Ian is almost crushed under the weight of an unbearable, secret guilt. Then one crisp January evening, he catches sight of a window with glowing yellow neon, the CHURCH OF THE SECOND CHANCE. He enters and soon discovers that forgiveness must be earned, through a bit of sacrifice and a lot of love.

Tin Can Tree - In the small town of Larksville, the Pike family is hopelessly out of step with the daily rhythms of life after the tragic, accidental death of six-year-old Janie Rose. Mrs. Pike seldom speaks, blaming herself, while Mr. Pike is forced to come out of his long, comfortable silence. Then there is ten-year-old Simon, who is suddenly without a baby sister – and without understanding why she's gone.

Those closest to this shattered family must learn to comfort them – and confront their own private shadows of hidden grief. If time cannot draw them out of the dark, then love may be their only hope.