Not many get to choose how they will die, but considering the possibilities, a tree falling on the house on an otherwise quiet afternoon, probably has never made anyone’s list. In Anne Tyler’s latest novel – The Beginner’s Goodbye – Dorothy dies at her computer when the huge oak leans into the sunroom, crushing her. Aaron, her husband, is in bed at the other side of the house, recovering from a cold. In the first few pages, Dorothy appears to have returned from the dead.
With glimpses of Tyler’s hometown of Baltimore, the story settles on how Aaron, who walks with a limp from a childhood disease, is coping. Tyler immediately backtracks from Aaron’s first view of his wife’s ghost to Dorothy’s last day, the practical incidents that made up their unromantic married life, and the subsequent changes in Aaron’s life since her death. The narrative is slow and draining at times, as Aaron returns to his childhood home to heal. As others awkwardly try to help him – not knowing what to say and delivering casseroles that he throws away – Tyler hits a few familiar notes for anyone who has either lost someone from death, or tried to understand the person left behind.
The title refers to Aaron’s work as editor in the family business – a vanity press for authors who pay to have their names printed on small guidebooks – Beginner’s books (one step up from the books for Dummies). The staff meetings and discussions over the boring drafts are surprisingly funny.
Like many of Tyler’s heroes, Aaron is lovable for his flaws, and a man just waiting to be saved. Tyler does not disappoint her faithful readers, but I won’t spoil the story by telling you how it all resolves, other than to remind you that Tyler is an optimist. The not so subtle message of living life while you have it, is delivered.
Having read most of Anne Tyler’s books, and having an affinity for the Baltimore area, I had hungrily anticipated this Pulitzer prize winner’s 19th book. At first, the thought of yet another book about a distraught widower (I’d finished Wolitzer’s An Available Man recently enough to have not forgotten it) seemed unbearable. However, although some of the obstacles to coping are, as expected, similar in both stories, the path to survival is much different in each book.
Anne Tyler’s characters move in a dimension of familiarity – they will remind you of people you know, or maybe wish you didn’t. After finishing the book, I was sure I was going to run into Aaron somewhere, but I suppose he is still back in Baltimore.