I haven’t read anything by Anne Tyler for some years. I loved The Accidental Tourist & I went on to read a couple more of her books but I read very little contemporary fiction these days & her books have passed me by. I wanted to read The Beginner’s Goodbye because it sounded similar in theme to The Accidental Tourist, & it is. Grief & how we cope with the loss of a loved one is a major theme of both books. In The Accidental Tourist Macon & Sarah have lost their son. In The Beginner’s Goodbye Aaron’s wife Dorothy has died, killed by a tree falling on to the sun porch.
Aaron is in his mid 30s. He wears a brace on his leg, the result of a childhood illness & he has a stammer. He works in the family publishing business with his sister, Nandina. Aaron’s marriage to Dorothy surprised his family & friends. Dorothy was a doctor & Aaron had met her when he was looking for a radiology specialist to contribute to a book his firm was publishing. Dorothy was a few years older than Aaron, stocky, unemotional, estranged from her family & completely uninterested in non-essentials like food or her appearance. They married just a few months later &, although they had no children, were very happy together. Dorothy’s death stuns Aaron. Initially he goes on living in the ruined house, unable to bear the thought of repairing it & unwilling to move back to the family home where Nandina lives. He’s forced to do this though when a rainstorm leads to the roof collapsing. Living & working with Nandina pushes Aaron into hiring a contractor, Gil Bryan, to start repairing the house.
Aaron is not altogether surprised when, one day, Dorothy appears. Her appearances are completely random. Suddenly he becomes aware of her walking beside him or standing on the footpath outside his office. Once she appears at a farmer’s market, looking at vegetables on the next stall. Aaron is comforted by this although they don’t talk about anything very profound. He’s not even sure that they do talk, maybe they’re just reading each other’s thoughts. Dorothy looks just as she always did in life although no one but Aaron can see her, or can they? When Aaron & Dorothy are out walking, friends suddenly move to the other side of the street or deliberately look only at Aaron when they stop & say hello. But, are they ignoring Dorothy or is she not really there? As time passes & the house is ready for Aaron to return, he begins to examine his marriage in a new way. He has to recognize the truth about the past.
The Beginner’s Goodbye is full of the humour & ridiculousness of everyday life. The Beginner’s Guides that Aaron’s company publish hold out the promise of a quick manual to any life situation from the cradle to the grave. From The Beginner’s Colicky Baby (their bestseller) to guides for budgeting, dog training & birdwatching, they aim to cover every emergency. They even produce boxsets of the guides for special occasions like a child leaving home. Woolcott Publishing is like a family, the staff have been there forever & Aaron chafes at their concern as they tiptoe around him.
Tyler is so good at exploring grief & our attitudes to it. Aaron is overwhelmed by casseroles on his doorstep & irritated by all the ways his friends & family try to help him. The uncomfortable silences when anyone mentions their wife (in case Aaron is upset); the way he feels that people have to plan their conversations with him so they don’t remind him of what’s happened. As if he can forget. The subtle or not so subtle attempts at matchmaking. It’s funny & poignant at the same time. I hate the word quirky but Tyler’s characters are quirky. Not so quirky that the reader doesn’t recognize them as real but they are identifiably Tyler characters. It’s hard to say what it is but it’s in the tone of voice, the dialogue, the descriptions. There’s a timelessness about Tyler’s Baltimore, where her books are set. It always feels like the 1950s in Tyler’s books to me. Or at least, the suburban America that I remember from watching TV when I was a child. I don’t mean that it’s artificial but it’s unmistakable. I loved The Beginner’s Goodbye. It’s a thoughtful, honest book about grief, love, families & how to survive it all.