Sunday, January 11, 2015

Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler

Page 50 of Ann Tyler’s early novel, Searching for Caleb, is the end of chapter three.  Around page 40, I decided I would give this novel to exactly page 50.  But suddenly, the story became really interesting, and I plowed right through that barrier.

According to the dust jacket on her latest novel, Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina.  She has written eleven novels, and Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.  Most of her novels detail the lives of slightly dysfunctional families, but she does so with a dry and subtle wit.  Almost all her novels I have read are set – at least in part – in Baltimore, Maryland.

The novel opens with a somewhat dreary portrait of the Peck Family.  The patriarch, Daniel Peck, inherited a rather exhausting array of rules governing his family.  The least peculiar of which involved carrying cream-colored paper, and an addressed and stamped envelope.  These “bread and butter” notes were to be written immediately upon leaving the home of family or friends after a visit.  The notes were formulaic.  A brief thanks for the hospitality followed by a specific mention of some bright spot in the visit.  Daniel required mailing at the first post office spotted on the way home.  He
did not trust corner mail boxes when they changed from Army green to red and blue.

The story revolves around Justine – Daniel’s granddaughter -- her husband, Duncan, who also happened to be her cousin, their child Meg, and Caleb.  Caleb left home unannounced in 1912.  He never contacted any members of the family.  As Daniel aged, he clung to a single, odd photo of Caleb, with a cello, in the doorway of the second floor of a barn.  The compound of houses provided living space for all the children and grandchildren.  He becomes obsessed with finding his brother. 

After Caleb, Justine and Duncan were the first to break away from this restrictive family circle.  Justine loved all of her relatives, especially Daniel, so she reluctantly left with Duncan to start a goat farm.  As Duncan became bored with this project, he suddenly changed to chickens, then antiques.  Tyler describes the young couple’s arrival at their new house.  She writes, “‘Look! Someone left a pair of pliers,’ she said.  ‘And here’s a chair we can use for the porch.’  She was a pack rat; all of them were.  It was a family trait.  You could tell that in a flash when they started carrying things in from the truck – the bales of ancient, curly-edged magazines, zipper bags bursting with unfashionable clothes, cardboard boxes marked Clippings, Used Wrapping Paper, Photos, Empty Bottles.  Duncan and Justine staggered into the grandfather’s room carrying a steel filing cabinet from his old office, stuffed with carbon copies of all his personal correspondence for the twenty-three years since his retirement. In one corner of their own room Duncan stacked crates of machine parts and nameless metal objects picked up on walks, which he might someday want to use for some invention.  He had cartons of books, most of them second-hand, dealing with things like the development of the quantum theory and the philosophy of Lao-Tzu and the tribal life of Ila-speaking Northern Rhodesians” (31).

An example of Tyler’s humor involves Justine, who hated sweetened tea.  On a visit to her daughter, Meg’s home – shared with her mother-in-law, Mrs. Milson – Justine is given a glass of sweetened tea, despite the fact Meg asked the elderly woman to fix her some without sugar.  The excruciatingly polite Justine, sips the tea without complaint.  Then she notices candy on the coffee table.  “Justine chose that moment to reach toward the green glass shoe on the coffee table – sourballs! Right under her nose! – and chose a lemony yellow globe and pop it into her mouth, where she instantly discovered she that she had eaten a marble.  While everyone watched in silence she plucked it out delicately between thumb and forefinger and replaced it, only a little shinier than before, in the green glass shoe.  ‘I thought we could have used more rain,’ she told the ring of faces” (227).

Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb is a lot of fun.  She expertly handles all the peculiarities and foibles one can imagine in an overly eccentric family.  Try any of her novels, and you will be hooked as I am.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/10/15

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