Sunday, November 06, 2011

Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

For anyone who's read much of Anne Tyler there are a number of non-surprises here: the main character, Rebecca Holmes Davitch, is loving, sensitive, nurturing, humorous, expansive, a middle-aged woman who is taken for granted by her family, who maintains a continual air of upbeat enthusiasm and forced gaiety, and who doesn't quite understand how she ended up where she is. Surrounding her are any number of halfway lost ne'er-do-wells, vaguely unpleasant emotional leeches, and self-centered nincompoops who feed casually on her energy (among them her 87-year-old mother). It's arguable that she's happier than she knows, means more to the people in her life than she knows, is richer than George Bailey, etc., etc. But that's at best an even-money bet, I think. The surprise for me in this one was the hard rejection of the typical Tyler fussy person, who is perhaps best personified across her oeuvre by the Leary family in The Accidental Tourist. In this case it's Will Allenby, the boyfriend of Rebecca's youth that she threw over on the way to her present life, which shortly left her a widow responsible for four daughters, only one of them her own—not to mention emotionally responsible for a ragbag collection of characters from her deceased husband's extended family. Rebecca reaches out to Allenby, finding herself in a place where she rues the loss of a relationship that in memory was safe and warm and comfortable. But Allenby, as a tenured academic and aging divorced man, with a daughter with whom he cannot connect, has remarkably few charms. He is like the worst of the Learys with nothing to offset it, disconnected from all around him and deeply delusional about himself and his capabilities, which include at least one frightening episode of losing control and more generally a pathological inability to love and accept love. I had some personal identification with him in spite of all that, and thus his categorical rejection by Rebecca came almost as a shock. I didn't see how it could work out, but Tyler is usually more generous about the way she approaches these things and Rebecca was almost brutal with him. And then Tyler reveals how deeply depressed she actually is, what a blow the loss of her husband decades earlier had been, and how easily the callous disregard of her adopted family can leave her feeling adrift and lost. In many ways this seemed to me a notably depressing novel, rather unusual on the whole for Tyler. It does end on a note of cautious optimism, and I'm pretty sure, reading the tea leaves of interviews with her, that she sees the resolution as much closer to feel-good than I do. It left me feeling, in its immediate glow, a bit gloomy on the whole.

In case it's not at the library.

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