'The Beginner's Goodbye': the school of hard knocks, from beginner to intermediate
In Anne Tyler's "The Beginner's Goodbye," the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist writes about likable eccentrics who rise from Beginner to Intermediate in the classroom of life.
Special to The Seattle Times
"The Beginner's Goodbye"
by Anne Tyler
Knopf, 208 pp., $24.95
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler has the unerring eye for the quirky, but she makes her eccentric characters not only plausible but likable.
Such a creature is Aaron, a central character in Tyler's new book "The Beginner's Goodbye." A childhood fever has left him with a crippled arm and leg, and he has never had a great deal of confidence in his attractiveness or, indeed, his competence at life. His sister, Nandina, is a hoverer and, after the death of their parents, takes it upon herself to manage Aaron. This is made easier because they both work in the family publishing business, so access to Aaron is available on a daily basis.
When he meets Dorothy, an independent but socially challenged physician, they engage in a strange courtship (if you can call it that) that culminates in marriage. Nandina is not pleased. Dorothy, who somehow escaped all manifestations of the domestic gene, spends most of her time at work and is a rather sullen partner.
One evening Dorothy comes home and, as is her routine, goes looking for her Triscuit snack. When she can't find the box, because Nandina has cleaned up and moved it, she walks sulkily out to the sunporch, whereupon a tree falls on the house, crushing the roof and Dorothy's chest. She dies almost instantly. Aaron is bereft until, a few months after her death, Dorothy materializes at the market, on the street and in other unexpected places.
Aaron asks his co-workers and the contractor repairing his house if they have ever had visitations from lost loved ones. Gil, the contractor, admits to feeling the presence of his father, the man he never could please. He says: "I think that I was his unfinished business." As Dorothy appears and they have brief exchanges, Aaron gains insight about their marriage: "What I do remember is that familiar, weary, helpless feeling, the feeling that we were confined in some kind of rodent cage, wrestling together doggedly, neither one of us ever winning."
The hardy perennial of the family publishing company is a series of books starting with "The Beginner's Book ... " about wine, dog training, taxes, spices or a colicky baby. "More dignified than the Dummies books and more classily designed." In the fullness of time, Aaron discovers that there might be a way for a beginner to learn to say goodbye.
When he has come to terms with his life thus far, the world opens to him in a new way. One might say that both he and Nandina become intermediates, rather than beginners, in the game of life, as rendered faultlessly, entertainingly and entirely believably by Anne Tyler.
Valerie Ryan owns the Cannon Beach Book Co. in Cannon Beach, Ore.