Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

A treat is something wonderful which only comes once in a while. Special treats are spaced far apart and are especially welcome when they do appear. Baltimore-native Anne Tyler is a writer I have admired for a very long time. Her novels appear only once in a while with varying degrees of regularity. However, whenever a new novel does appear, I drop whatever I am reading for her.

The Beginner’s Goodbye tells the story of Aaron Woolcott, an editor at his family’s vanity publishing house, Woolcott Publishing. Aaron’s wife, Dorothy, has died in a tragic accident, and the novel begins with a visit from Dorothy. At first, Aaron is tentative, questioning his own sanity. Then, because he misses her so much, he looks forward to her appearances, and doesn’t wish to question her about her visits, fearing she would leave and never come back. Aaron was devoted to Dorothy, and he reflects, “one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with” (54).

Aaron’s sister, Nandina, also works at Woolcott, but she is something of a tyrant in the office. She invites Aaron to stay with her while repairs are made to his house. He hires a contractor, gives Gil the keys, and says, fix my house, “Everything. I don’t know. Just take care of it. You decide” (76). Aaron cannot bring himself to go home to the scene of Dorothy’s death.

Tyler’s prose is soft, calm, and understated. She weaves a tale of the interesting, ordinary quality of middle class lives set mostly in her home town. On one occasion, late in the novel, Aaron walks down the street of his house, and sees Dorothy standing on the sidewalk. Tyler writes, “Harder to figure, though, was that she didn’t visit our own house – at least not the interior. Wouldn’t you suppose she’d be interested? The closest she’d come was that time on the sidewalk. But then, one Sunday morning, I caught sight of her in the back yard, beside where the oak tree had been. It was one of the few occasions she was already in place before I arrived. I glanced out our kitchen window and saw her standing there, looking down at the wood chips, with her hands jammed in the pockets of her doctor coat. I made it to her side in record time, even though I seem to have left my cane somewhere in the house. I said, slightly short of breath – ‘You see they removed all the evidence. Ground the stump to bits even.’ ‘Mmhmm,’ she said. I stopped. This wasn’t what I wanted to be talking about. During all the months when she had been absent, there were so many things I had saved up to tell her, so many bits of news about the house and the neighborhood and friends and work and family, but now they seemed inconsequential. Puny. Move far enough away from an even and it sort of levels out, so to speak – settles into the general landscape” (147-148). Aaron does “sort things out” – with Dorothy’s help -- and moves on with his life.

If you have never read Anne Tyler, Any number of her 18 novels would be a good place to start, but The Beginner’s Goodbye would be a wonderful introduction to this award-winning novelist. 5 stars (565)

--Chiron, 5/6/12

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