Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lessons in Grieving

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler


You'd think the quiet lives that Dorothy and Aaron led would end uneventfully. Then the storm came, which caused a tree to fall through their house, killing Dorothy. After Aaron moved in with his sister, Dorothy started coming back from the dead. As she shows up more and more, Aaron finds he's looking not only at their relationship, but his whole life. That includes the destroyed house, his disabled body, his bossy sister and a job in the family publishing business.

Anne Tyler is famous for taking the most ordinary and forgettable people and turning them into to extraordinary and unforgettable characters. She does this by shaking up their run-of-the-mill lives with some kind of a twist. One can almost imagine her handing these situations to her characters and then sitting back to watch how they cope. The only thing left is for Tyler to write it all down. This is probably why I enjoy her books so much. Her characters come off feeling so natural and real, especially because they're all flawed - sometimes physically, sometimes psychologically, and sometimes a bit of both.

In this novel, the twist is the 'ghost' of Dorothy. What is interesting is that she shows up seemingly as solid as any living person, which bewilders Aaron. Not because she's appearing at random times, but because no one else seems to be noticing that Dorothy is there. Taking into account that we all know that there is no such thing as ghosts; one would think that this is a step in a different direction for Tyler. However, all this is done without even the smallest indication that anything magical or supernatural is going on. Instead, we accept this apparition because we feel for Aaron, and we know that grief and mourning can sometimes have strange effects on us. What's more, just because someone talks to, or even sees a dead loved one, that doesn't mean that they're crazy; it just means that they miss them terribly. Tyler describes this beautifully when Aaron tells the reader about seeing Dorothy, saying
But put yourself in my place. Call to mind a person you've lost that you will miss to the end of your days, and then imagine happening upon that person out in public. … You wouldn't question your sanity, because you couldn't bear to think it wasn't real. And you certainly wouldn't demand explanations, or alert anybody nearby, or reach out to touch this person, not even if you'd been feeling that one touch was worth giving up everything for. You would hold your breath. You would keep as still as possible. You would will your loved one not to go away ever again.

As Aaron works through his grief, these visitations actually help him look at his world differently. He just has to figure out where to start. Tyler is also a master of troubled relationships. Not that all the relationships are problematic, but that there is always something in them that is off-key. Readers will see these difficulties as trivial and easy to overcome, but the characters themselves - like real people - seem to find them insurmountable. This makes her characters all the more believable, and while we might get frustrated about some of the ways they act, we realize that had we been in the same situation, we might not have been any more sensible.

It is this naked, yet loving portrait of everyday people and life that really shines through in Tyler's novels and "The Beginner's Goodbye" is no exception. What's more, she does it in such a straight-forward, simple style that the prose just envelopes you and seeps into your very pores. Furthermore, at fewer than 200 pages, the book just flies by. This bittersweet novel will tug at your heartstrings and make you feel both happy and sad, without anything maudlin or sappy. There's little more to add than this book deserves a full five stars out of five and is highly recommended. 



"The Beginner's Goodbye" by Anne Tyler is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you.

This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans that also appears on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, and previously published on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.