Bookmark: Cover hides what's really inside

Her publisher surely meant well, but the cover of Anne Tyler's new novel "The Beginner's Goodbye" (Knopf) is all wrong.

The cover — a pair of elegant cups and saucers displayed against a doily-white background — might reasonably be subtitled "Sunday Tea at Grandma's." While I am a fan of both tea and grandmas, and currently have no disputes pending with doilies, the cover just doesn't work.

The novel supposedly summarized by this gentle, simple, even soporific image is neither gentle nor simple. And its insights will keep you up nights.

I sympathize with the designer's dilemma. Concocting a cover for a Tyler novel would be a daunting task. Tyler, like Alice McDermott, Penelope Lively, William Trevor and a handful of other like-souled contemporary authors, typically writes more about moods and ideas and inclinations than tangible things. Her people do more leaning than plunging. More head-scratching than trigger-pulling. They tend to look at life sideways instead of straight on.

How, then, to illustrate the essence of a Tyler character like Aaron Woolcott, whimsical narrator of "The Beginner's Goodbye"? How to indicate in a visual way the particular character of Aaron's thinking — which is hesitant, diffident, roundabout, but finally stubborn and self-assured? A lot goes on in a Tyler story, but it's not the kind of action that lends itself to pictures. A graphic novel based on "The Beginner's Goodbye" would consist of little more than a tree, a stethoscope, a book and a swing set. Everything else happens inside Aaron's mind.

The novel features a killer of an opening sentence: "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted." Uh-oh, you think. We're back in the oft-traveled land of "Ghost," the 1990 movie starring Demi Moore as the widow who doesn't know her dead husband is stalking her.

Well, no. We're not. It's true that Aaron sees his deceased wife, Dorothy, around town, but only occasionally. And that's not his biggest issue. His biggest issue is the realization that he and Dorothy were not terribly well-matched. Is your grief still legitimate if the spouse for whom you're grieving was obtuse, temperamental, self-absorbed? Does an early death like Dorothy's — from a freak accident — lose its poignancy if your memories of the deceased are not all happy ones?

Aaron's union with Dorothy was "difficult," he concedes. "Out of sync. Uncoordinated. It seemed we just never quite got the hang of being a couple the way other people did. We should have taken lessons or something: that's what I tell myself." Dorothy, he recalls, "looked a little bit like a bulldog." And could act like one as well.

For fans of Tyler, who does not exactly flood the market with her work, this is a special spring: Along with "The Beginner's Goodbye," she also wrote the introduction to "Midstream" (Scribner) by the late Reynolds Price, a new memoir put together from the author's papers after his death in 2011. Price, an extravagantly talented novelist in his own right, was Tyler's teacher during her days as an undergraduate at Duke University.

Her nonfiction is as measured and thoughtful as her fiction. She takes pains to describe Price's teaching style, the "ebullience" that made fledgling writers believe in themselves and their work — without becoming ebullient herself. "He was an exclamation point in a landscape of mostly declarative sentences," Tyler writes, and that is as enthusiastic as she allows herself to be about a man she clearly revered.

"The Beginner's Goodbye," brief as it is, ranks high in the hierarchy of Tyler's works. And what a lineup that is: Her best-known novels are "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" (1982) and "The Accidental Tourist" (1985); the latter was made into a quirky, entertaining film in 1988 that starred William Hurt. Her novel "The Amateur Marriage" (2004) was one of the best of the decade, profound in its understanding of how we force ourselves to try, time and time again, to form attachments, and then watch helplessly as, time and time again, they fail.

"The Beginner's Goodbye" is, come to think of it, a sort of condensed version of "The Amateur Marriage." You'll also hear echoes of "The Accidental Tourist."

But don't let those teacups on the cover fool you. This is no mild-mannered trip down memory lane, no sweet nostalgic ramble. This is — despite its domestic setting and pillow-soft prose — a tough-minded, even severe novel, filled with hard truths and complex surprises. Just when you think Tyler must be the coldest fish in the world, she describes two characters who are falling in love — not, heaven knows, Aaron and Dorothy — and she does it with beauty and brevity:

"They were almost touching but not quite; there was perhaps an inch or two of empty space between them, and you could tell somehow that both of them were very conscious of this space — acutely conscious, electrically conscious."

The magic of that passage lies in its unexpectedness. Tyler doesn't gush. Love exists, she seems to say, but it is rare. And thus when it comes, it is all the more radiant.

JULIA KELLER, the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

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