When you pick up a novel by Anne Tyler, you can expect certain things. It will be set in Baltimore. It will follow families populated by out-of-step characters ranging from the slightly odd to the wildly eccentric, whose actions, or non-actions, are motivated by a need for love and tangible sense of self; this need is sometimes conscious, sometimes not. It will have a provocative, often seemingly contradictory title — “The Accidental Tourist,” “Saint Maybe,” “The Amateur Marriage,” “Breathing Lessons.” It will be a pleasure to read.
“The Beginner’s Goodbye,” Tyler’s 19th novel, features all of these things and more — there is a ghost — and less; just over 200 pages, it is, both in literal weight and narrative complexity, lighter than most of the Tyler canon. Which should not be construed as “less,” at least not in the pejorative sense of the word. In many ways, “Goodbye” feels like the center slice of an Anne Tyler novel, a distillation. Of all the ghosts and dislocations, of all the miscast but still loving families, tin-eared marriages and baffling children, of all the sudden tragedies that cause even the most plodding horse to rear up and take flight, finding grace and strength he had forgotten he had.
The plodding horse/eccentric main character here is Aaron Woolcott, whom Tyler has endowed with symbolism both physical — a childhood fever left him with a crippled arm and leg and a stammer — and professional. Aaron works at the vanity press his great-grandfather established, publishing, among other things, a series of books aimed at beginners: “The Beginner’s Guide to Wine,” “The Beginner’s Book of Dog Training.” “These were something on the order of the “Dummies’” books,” he explains in his wry narrator’s tone, “but without the cheerleader tone of voice — more dignified…. Also we were more focused…. Anything is manageable if it’s divided into small enough increments, was the theory; even life’s most complicated lessons.”
Hence this book’s title, and hence its almost novella-like nature, at least in comparison with Tyler’s other works, which often span decades and generations. “The Beginner’s Goodbye” confines itself to months, specifically the months following the death of Aaron’s wife, Dorothy. The two are in the middle of an ordinary marital moment — Aaron comes home early from work with a cold, the two have a small quarrel over care-taking and the location of the Triscuits — when a tree falls on the house, inflicting wounds on Dorothy from which she eventually dies and wounds on Aaron from which he eventually learns how to live.
It’s classic Tyler, replete with references to crab feasts and Reisterstown Road, with characters who have dug themselves so deep into their emotional caves that they don’t realize how small the space is, and dark, until an avalanche removes the back wall. She is, quintessentially, a domestic writer, a term that, absurdly, still implies some sort of smallness or fear of more sweeping narrative. Tyler’s narratives are plenty sweeping, though not in a strutting look-at-me-ain’t-I-epic way. She writes vividly of homes and neighborhoods, of food and habits — although I cannot remember which novel it is in, I conjure one’s mother’s tendency to leave the eggshells in the carton after cracking the eggs every time I make an omelet. The nets her families weave are both for safety and capture because, like a sobbing infant who has kicked open her swaddling blanket, we sometimes need confinement as much as we need freedom.
Aaron’s confinement is his grief, which is so great that it requires the appearance of Dorothy’s ghost to assuage it. Not that Dorothy’s ghost is designed to bring comfort — instead, she forces him to examine the true dimensions of his loss, which are both greater and more manageable than he first believes.
The wonder of Anne Tyler is how consistently clear-eyed and truthful she remains about the nature of families and especially marriage. Courageous enough to pick up where most other novelists leave off — after the vows have been exchanged — Tyler understands that crisis comes in many forms and that relationships between people are both sacred and often doomed. Because love, though necessary, is by its very nature imperfect. Without love, we live in darkness, but its discovery does not guarantee happiness; in fact, it often precludes it. Which is the great irony of life — that which brings the greatest pleasure, brings the greatest pain. A domestic problem, yes, but as epic as they come.