Sunday, January 24, 2016

Earthly Possessions (1977)

Here's an earlier Anne Tyler novel—working my way back now, this is her seventh overall—and it comes with a lot of familiar features: a Baltimore setting, a dysfunctional family of siblings, a marriage on the rocks, a compulsively chatty woman as the main character, and a road trip with overtones of desperation. Some awkwardness yet: one prong of the narration is set in motion by the unlikely circumstance of our hero, Charlotte Emory, taken hostage in a botched bank robbery. It's the ever gentle Tyler, and before long the crime is all good, no harm no foul. Charlotte and the bank robber sail off down the road on quixotic errands. Charlotte had been thinking of leaving her husband anyway, and Charlotte's ruminations on how she has come to such a pass—sailing off down the road with a bank robber, that is, and leaving her husband behind—occupy the other main prong of the story. Charlotte recalls her life, her family of origin, her husband, her children, I think a pet was involved in there too. You would expect her life to be passing in front of her in a hostage situation, but it's not like that. She's just talking it out on a car ride. It's good stuff, the meat and grist of a lifetime, shot down the barrel of time. But the details can feel overplayed or even made-up. One thread about someone's wife running off with her father-in-law seemed a bridge too far and/or accepted all too equably, an artifact of those post-'60s pre-Reagan times, perhaps. Then again, this is a hostage situation following a bank robbery that went bad. Or perhaps I'm judgmental. For the most part, Earthly Possessions is what Anne Tyler got to be very good at: the little ways people intrude on one another, disappoint one another, offer redemption to one another. There was nobody I liked a whole lot in it, but I was pretty much on board for the whole thing, letting suspension of disbelief take care of the rest. Her characters usually have charms even when they are annoying. I know I like it more than the one that came next, Morgan's Passing, but otherwise I don't think it's really up to her second-half work either. I can see better how she developed and settled into the wonderful Baltimore of her imagination, because here the setting feels much more incidental. She's not as sharp as she would get in her observations, but she is always a good student of people. I am flailing toward quantifying: it's not exactly a B or three stars of five (or two-and-a-half of four). But a rating of 5 on a scale of 1 to 10 seems to say so much so quickly.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Wonder what her thoughts are on The Wire? I recall some story last year where Freddie Gray protesters were calling out The Wire for whitewashing (literally, I guess) Baltimore cops. And I still think that Orioles game they played w/out fans was one of the spookiest displays of civic decay to come along in awhile. Anyway, wonder what Anne Tyler makes of The Wire and Freddie Gray's Baltimore?