I’ve read some really good novels lately, which is fortunate for me, because the non-fiction I’ve been reading (as research for my next book) has been very heavy (in both the literal and figurative senses). Here are some of the novels I’ve enjoyed:
The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler
I’d feared this might be merely a reprise of The Accidental Tourist, and it’s true the protagonists of these novels have many similarities – they are both introverted, socially-awkward men who write guidebooks, and they have both just lost a beloved family member in shocking circumstances. However, this book feels quite different in a lot of ways. It’s shorter, for one thing, and lighter in tone. In The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron’s wife has died in a freak accident, and there is nobody he can blame – not even God, because Aaron is an atheist. He copes with the loss of Dorothy by moving out of the house where she died and throwing himself into his work at the family publishing firm. He tells everyone he’s doing fine and he even believes it, until he suddenly begins to ‘see’ Dorothy. At first, she is a silent presence in his life, but eventually they begin to talk, and to argue, with more honesty than they ever did when she was alive. Aaron’s growing self-awareness feels true, his well-meaning friends and relatives are interesting and funny, and I loved the customary glimpse of a character from a previous Anne Tyler novel (in this case, it’s Luke from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, now grown up and yes, running a restaurant – perhaps he inherited it from his uncle Ezra). My only criticism would be that the final chapter wrapped things up a little too neatly (Luke even provides the moral of the story, as if we couldn’t work it out for ourselves), but by that stage, I was so fond of the characters that I was happy to see that they were happy. This is highly recommended for Anne Tyler fans, even if it’s not her best novel. There’s a good review of the book here and you can read my previous post about Anne Tyler here.
The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson
I had read this before, but that was so long ago I couldn’t remember anything about it, except that I’d liked it. This is a wonderfully honest story of a precocious, headstrong country girl sent to a snobby boarding school in 1890s Melbourne. Poor Laura gets into one scrape after another as she attempts to ingratiate herself with her classmates, but her gaudy, home-made frocks, outspoken manners, and lack of interest in boys means she’s doomed to failure. Fortunately, she manages to make it out of school with her self-esteem intact, and the final chapter implies she goes out into the world and achieves great things (unlike her classmates), because “even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found”. The edition I read also included a hilarious review quote from a 1910 journal, which sternly declaimed:
“The book is calculated to impress very unfavourably those who do not know that the Australian girl is a much cleaner, wholesomer and straighter person than any of the characters portrayed. It is a book we should strongly recommend adults to keep out of the hands of girls.”
So, you’ve been warned.
Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley
This felt a lot like a grown-up version of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, as both narrators were droll, articulate and perceptive when observing the failings of others, but were quite unable to acknowledge or fix their own problems. And the narrator of Insignificant Others, Richard, has plenty of problems. He has a distant relationship with his live-in boyfriend, who is probably cheating on him; he has an affectionate but futile attachment to a married man; he has become obsessed with exercising at the gym, to the detriment of his health; and he’s frustrated by his job at a software company. I’m not sure I’d usually care about any of these problems, but Richard’s narration makes the whole thing into a very entertaining satire of modern American life. For example, here’s Richard contemplating his homophobic, religious-fanatic secretary:
“The degree to which one is obliged, for the sake of tolerance, to be tolerant of the intolerant has never been clear to me.”
And, when arguing with his cheating partner:
“I hate when truthfulness is offered up as a sign of love and friendship, especially when it’s truthfulness about betrayal.”
And, after being berated, yet again, by his sister for not having children:
“The world of parents was divided between those like Benjamin who, worries about Tyler notwithstanding, had unqualified love for their kids and saw childlessness as a disability, and those like my sister Beth, who had ambivalent feelings about their offspring and therefore labelled childlessness as unmitigated selfishness.”
Recommended, unless you’re a fan of George W. Bush (Richard’s hilarious rants about Bush’s inadequacies feature throughout the novel). If you’d like to know more, there’s a review and excerpt here.