book review: The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler

This review contains spoilers!

The Beginner’s Goodbye is fewer than 200 pages long, and some aspects of it felt too slight. It’s a first-person narrative, but the beginning is strangely summary-like, flitting from incident to incident in the narrator’s attempt to explain the phenomenon of his dead wife’s reappearance and his theories on why it might be happening. It isn’t until 25 pages in that we see the circumstances of her sudden death…and those scenes, at their house and in the hospital, are masterful. The unreality, the weird details, the dialogue and misunderstandings, all perfect. The book is worth reading for these ten pages.

The portrait of grief that follows, however, didn’t bring much I haven’t seen before in Anne Tyler’s other books. It reminded me very much of The Accidental Tourist after Sarah leaves Macon, but without the humor of Macon’s devising his domestic systems. This protagonist even has a job similar to Macon’s– he edits a series of questionable how-to books for beginners on every conceivable topic. And as in Tourist, someone the protagonist knows in a professional capacity starts dating his sister…but unlike in Tourist, there’s not much tension, as we have every indication the guy is decent and successful and it’s a good match.

I wouldn’t say that this was merely Accidental Tourist Lite, but I did feel that a lot was left undeveloped, or mentioned too late. The new love interest at the end seemed almost random, like the narrator could have picked a different co-worker just as easily, to show us the importance of getting to know, love, and cherish someone because time goes so quickly. Turns out he and his new wife have known each other since first grade, which would have colored their relationship for me throughout the book, but I didn’t know til near the end.

The observations and word choices I have admired for so many years are still here (this is Anne Tyler’s nineteenth novel). Yes, Thanksgiving sweet potatoes are cobbled with mini-marshmallows. Yes, 911 dispatchers’ questions sound like statements, with the pitch going down at the end. The doctor’s chef-like clogs and too-long pants and crisp white coat rumpled by the practical satchel strap, and her blunt bad haircut, are perfectly in focus in my head. But not so much the history and texture of the marriage, though we’re dutifully told about their first meeting, courtship, wedding, squabbles. Maybe the problem is that the narrator is waking up to the missed opportunities and misconceptions he had, and we the readers aren’t getting there any faster than he is. I spent a lot of the book not being able to see as much as I wanted.

Daniel Pinkwater and Anne Tyler are two authors who have meant a lot to me (a lot!) over the years, but whose books I don’t rush to anymore. Maybe the part of me that drank up their work got saturated at some point. Even if their new stuff is just as wonderful–and I can’t really tell if it is or not, I can only tell that it’s largely the same–I can’t imagine loving it the way I loved the older work that I was so thirsty for.