Sometimes hearing a book really is better than reading it. That is especially true when the narrator is Blair Brown. The actress has delivered, with apparent ease, all of the warmth and quixotic humor from Anne Tyler's 15th novel, "Back When We Were Grownups." (Random House Audiobooks; unabridged fiction; six cassettes; nine hours; $29.95; read by Brown. Also available on nine CDs, $34.95.)
The story begins like a fairy tale--"Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." That woman is Rebecca Davitch, who, at age 53, finds herself in a full-blown midlife crisis.
Rebecca has a virulent case of the "what ifs?" What if she had married her high school sweetheart instead of jilting him for an older man with three children? What if she had finished her college thesis and earned her degree?
So she pulls her old research out of a box and hunts down the former flame. But Rebecca is often sidetracked from her personal quest by a large and demanding family, of which she is unquestionably the glue binding it together.
Though the novel is filled with Tyler's usual cast of quirky characters, too many are underdeveloped. All too often Rebecca's daughter and three stepdaughters come across as selfish ingrates.
We never get to know them well enough to quite understand why Rebecca puts up with their selfishness. Poppy, her great-uncle, by marriage, is far more interesting, because we are provided with cunningly revealed details of his life.
The ending is weak; it just tapers off. While it can be said that that may be closer to the uncertainties of life, it's just not satisfying.
This may not be Tyler's best novel, but even her lesser fare is worth hearing, particularly with Brown's clear diction and perfect pacing. She expresses the annoyances, humor and joy in these people's lives. She manages a lively Southern accent for some of Rebecca's relatives and lowers her voice and slows the pace for men.
Because Brown's voice is fairly deep, she is one of the few women in the field who can change her tone for masculine roles and not sound ridiculous. She also clearly understands the material.
For instance, one of the characters is a dramatic, former nightclub singer who speaks with a grandiose and ersatz British accent. Thanks to Brown's interpretation, the woman sounds exactly like the controlling, attention-seeking diva we expect.
Bestselling novelist Sharyn McCrumb has veered away from the mystery genre in favor of a sweet, though not terribly memorable, novel of a family's history linked by an ancient ballad.
Combining the past with the present, "The Songcatcher" unearths the family tree of a famous country music singer, Lark McCourry, a woman obsessed with finding a song she barely remembers from her childhood. (Brilliance Audio, abridged fiction; seven cassettes; 10 hours; $32.95; read by James Daniels and Aasne Vigesaa. Also available abridged, four cassettes, six hours, $24.95.)
The story reaches back to 1751, when 10-year-old Malcolm Mc-Courry is kidnapped from the Scottish Island of Islay and eventually brought to the Colonies, where he becomes a prosperous lawyer. Most of the story is devoted to Lark and her ancestor Malcolm, but McCrumb follows the story through five other generations.
The author's eye for detail and use of magical realism helps raise this above the level of the average historical drama. Also, the idea of maintaining a family connection through oral tradition is quite charming.
But too many of McCrumb's lesser characters are more cliched than not, and the tale plays out without much surprise. Brilliance wisely chose to use a male and female voice, which helps us keep track of the many characters. The readers lack strong voices, though both are adept at regional and foreign accents and at adopting a different voice for each character.
The production's director, Laura Grafton, uses music at the end of each side of the cassettes and concludes the tale with the full piece. This is a clever touch, as the song is heard in snippets throughout the story, so it is a treat to hear a finished version.
The afterward tells of the song's provenance, as well as the author's family history that led to the novel.
Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.