Thanks to John le Carré, I’m now aware that there is a Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years to a writer for a body of work, rather than for a single novel. The finalists for the 2011 award were announced last month in Sydney, and I’m very pleased that Anne Tyler is among them. She is one of my favourite novelists ever and I hope she wins.
For those who aren’t familiar with her work, she’s written eighteen novels:
If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
The Tin Can Tree (1965)
A Slipping-Down Life (1970)
The Clock Winder (1972)
Celestial Navigation (1974)
Searching for Caleb (1975)
Earthly Possessions (1977)
Morgan’s Passing (1980)
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Breathing Lessons (1988)
Saint Maybe (1991)
Ladder of Years (1995)
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Digging to America (2006)
Noah’s Compass (2009)
With such a large body of work, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Luckily for you, I’ve produced this handy guide, which you can print out and take to your nearest library or bookshop:
For those who enjoy Southern Gothic:
Anne Tyler is reported to “hate” her first two novels, but I think they’re both interesting books, even if they don’t quite work. If Morning Ever Comes is about a boy who abandons his studies in New York to rush home to North Carolina after his runaway sister shows up. There’s some very fine descriptive writing and the characters are fascinating, if a little too self-consciously quirky. Nothing very much happens, but it’s an enjoyable read.
The Tin Can Tree contains even more Southern eccentricity, but with slightly more narrative. It’s about an extended family that falls apart after their youngest child is killed. What I really like about this novel is the vividness of the setting – one “long, crowded” house inhabited by three families, surrounded by tobacco farms and dust. It’s hard to like these characters, but then, they are people weighed down with grief.
Earthly Possessions could possibly fall into this category, too, although it’s more of a Southern road trip novel than anything else. It’s about an unhappy housewife, who’s taken hostage by a young bank robber. They then head for Florida in a stolen car. Apparently, this was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon, but I haven’t seen it.
For those who like Young Adult novels:
A Slipping-Down Life is probably the closest to a YA novel that Anne Tyler has written. A lonely high school girl, obsessed with a local rock singer, decides to carve his name into her forehead, and the attention she receives alters her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined. This is a coming-of-age tale with a satisfying conclusion, set in a Southern town so insular and isolated that you can understand why all the teenagers are desperate to escape.
Saint Maybe is absolutely wonderful, but doesn’t fit quite as easily into the YA category. It’s about Ian, a teenage boy who becomes convinced he’s responsible for his brother’s suicide and goes searching for a way to atone, ending up a member of the very odd ‘Church of the Second Chance’. Much of the story is told from Ian’s perspective, but there are also contributions from Agatha, Thomas and Daphne, his brother’s children, as they grow up. It’s a funny, thoughtful novel about guilt, forgiveness and the consolations of religion. I highly recommend it.
For those who like reading about really annoying men:
Celestial Navigation is about Jeremy, “a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who never did leave home”. Although the words ‘Asperger’s’, ‘autism’ and ‘agoraphobia’ are never used, they could all apply to him, so I was fascinated to read in a New York Times article that he’s “the closest Anne Tyler has come to writing about herself”. When Jeremy’s devoted mother dies, it’s difficult to see how he’ll manage, but he takes in lodgers and works on his art, and eventually falls for Mary, who’s just walked out on her husband. I loathed both these characters for their extreme self-centredness, but it’s a beautifully written novel, and the minor characters are very endearing.
Morgan in Morgan’s Passing is “a man who had gone to pieces, or maybe he’d always been in pieces; maybe he’d arrived unassembled”. He spends most of his time collecting costumes, practising accents and acting out roles – a street priest, a refugee without any English skills, and then, disastrously, a doctor. This leads to him delivering Emily’s first baby in the back of his car. He then wheedles his way into the calm, organised lives of Emily and her husband Leon. Morgan hopes they’ll help him untangle his own life, but all he does is spread the chaos around. I detested Morgan, but liked Emily and was fascinated by her Quaker upbringing. Apparently, Anne Tyler’s “early childhood was spent in a succession of Quaker communities in the mountains of North Carolina.”
For those interested in an analysis of a marriage from the perspectives of both wife and husband:
Breathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer Prize, follows a day in the life of a seemingly incompatible middle-aged couple, Maggie and Ira. As the summary in my copy of the book explains, “Maggie has an inexhaustible passion for sorting out other people’s problems: where happiness does not exist she must create it”. Her capacity for self-deception is extremely irritating, but Ira isn’t quite as perfect as he thinks, either. What I really loved about this book was how the author used a single day of their life to illuminate everything that both tears them apart and holds them together.
The Amateur Marriage is about another mismatched couple, Michael and Pauline, but this story begins at their fateful meeting during World War Two. They spend the following decades in vicious conflict, their children reduced to unhappy bystanders. I’m not fond of this novel because I dislike both Michael and Pauline, and the structure of this book didn’t quite work for me (or for this reviewer). However, some readers love this book.
For those interested in reading about an unhappy wife:
In Ladder of Years, Cordelia is on a summer holiday with her unappreciative family when she decides to walk off down the beach and not come back. I was fascinated by the notion of a woman leaving her husband, without any preparation or even conscious thought on the matter, and then setting up a completely new life in a new town. Could she truly abandon everything from her past? Would she simply end up repeating the old patterns of her life? I must admit, I was disappointed with the conclusion to this novel, but I enjoyed the journey.
Back When We Were Grownups is my least favourite Anne Tyler novel – in fact, I gave away my copy of this book, because it irritated me so much that I didn’t want it sitting next to my proper Anne Tyler novels. However, I include it here for the sake of completeness. There’s a good review here, if you’d like to know more.
For those interested in reading about complex, dysfunctional families:
Searching for Caleb is a rich, rewarding family saga stretching from the 1870s to the 1970s. Justine Peck elopes with her rebellious cousin Duncan, hoping to escape the dull, dry “Peckness” of her family. However, it isn’t as easy as she or Duncan predict, because they’re soon joined by their grandfather Justin, who’s been searching for his runaway brother Caleb for decades. This novel is utterly engrossing and has a wonderful ending. I loved it.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of those rare, absolutely perfect novels. Anne Tyler thinks it’s her best, too (she also said it was “her hardest novel to write” ). Pearl is abandoned by her husband, left to bring up three children in her own angry, bitter fashion. Then the children grow up to wreak havoc upon their own spouses and children. I realise this does not sound like a very enjoyable read, but it’s so funny, moving and wise. I can’t recommend it too highly.
The Clock Winder probably fits into this category, too, but I don’t think it’s one of her best books. Here’s a thoughtful review if you’d like to know more.
For those interested in unsentimental portraits of old age:
A Patchwork Planet could probably fit into the ‘dysfunctional families’ category, but one of the many delights of this novel is thirty-year-old Barnaby’s job at Rent-A-Back (or Roll-A-Bat, as his socialite mother scornfully calls it). Barnaby and his friend Martine do chores for the elderly, ranging from decorating their Christmas trees to taking out their trash cans and disposing of their late husbands’ law books. I admit that Barnaby’s voice isn’t always plausible for a young man, but his cluelessness is hilarious. This is another deceptively light-hearted story with a powerful ending.
Noah’s Compass is Tyler’s most recent novel. It’s about Liam, a solitary, introspective man who’s been retrenched from his teaching job. He settles down in a resigned fashion to contemplate the last years of his life. However, on the first day of this new life, he’s attacked by a burglar and he wakes up a few days later with no memory of this event. His attempts to discover those lost moments throw him into a relationship with a younger woman, who seems as though she might revitalise him . . . or perhaps not. This is certainly not an optimistic book, but this reviewer admired it, and so did this one.
For those interested in a multicultural view of the United States, post 9-11:
I love Digging to America, which tells the story of two very different Baltimore families, who each adopt a baby girl from Korea. The description of the rigidly politically-correct Dickinson-Donaldson family verges a little too close to caricature, but I adored the Yazdans, originally from Iran. Maryam, the grandmother of the adopted baby, is a wonderfully astringent observer of American customs, and her independence and intelligence make her one of my favourite Anne Tyler characters. This reviewer agreed.
I can’t quite categorise The Accidental Tourist, but I couldn’t possibly leave it out. Only Anne Tyler could turn the story of a man destroyed by the murder of his child and the subsequent breakdown of his marriage into a story so incredibly moving, hilarious and hopeful. I love this book, and I also enjoyed the film version, which starred William Hurt, Geena Davis, Kathleen Turner and some very clever corgis.
Anne Tyler is famously reclusive, but she has given one interview about her writing process (unfortunately, you now need an account with The New York Times to read this), one about The Amateur Marriage, and one about Digging to America. The Observer has also done an interesting profile of her.
Extra note: The book cover images I’ve used are all from the Readings website, which is selling a collection of Anne Tyler novels with snazzy new jackets, published by Vintage. Inexplicably, Saint Maybe is not included. This is very sad, especially as Readings doesn’t even have an old edition of the book in stock.