Have you read Anne Tyler?

Here’s why you should.

Anne Tyler, an Elegant Soul

Jottings from my Reading Journal

I discovered the American author, Anne Tyler, in 1990 when I read Breathing Lessons (1988) which won the Pullitzer Prize in 1989. I didn’t immediately latch on to her writing but reread it five years later. My reading journal records: ‘Completely forgotten it from first time. Gentle, subtle – time and characters’ lives woven together.’ I’m afraid the word ‘subtle’ will keep recurring in this piece.

In 1992 I started seriously reading her novels with Saint Maybe (1991) the story of the Bedloes family and the personal tragedies which befall them and what paths people have to follow to overcome their grief, shame and guilt to find inner peace and love again. I wrote: ‘Superb read. Beautiful style and elegant writing. Very touching. Wanted it to go on.’ I haven’t wavered much from that view since. I loved The Accidental Tourist (1985): ‘A subtle and moving account of grief. Couldn’t stop reading it.’ The film version with William Hurt and Geena Davis in 1988 obviously brought her into the public eye, but the film is not the novel.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) is a particular favourite. I recorded ‘Brilliant. Amazing how quickly she involves the reader in her characters’ lives. Subtle and addictive’.  Then over the years I have read most of her early books including A Slipping Down Life (1970), Celestial Navigation (1974) and Earthly Possessions (1977) – not quite in the same league as the period starting in 1982 with Dinner. From then on I eagerly awaited each new book.

Another I admire is Patchwork Planet (1996)  ‘Her subtle style works its magic. The character Barnaby Gaitlin, supposed 30 year-old loser doing odd jobs for old folks, enters your mind & soul so much you just read on to find out whether he finds happiness. Quiet observations about living and dying. Bit like The Accidental Tourist in tone & outcome – finding love in the unexpected.’

In 2001 Tyler published Back When We Were Grown Ups which I wasn’t sure about as it seemed to be treading familiar territory. I wrote: ‘Seemed again to be a slight subject or rather well-worn one – 53 year-old woman reviews life, trying to recreate old romance to see what life she might have had if she’d taken other turning & had married her college sweetheart.’ I then record: ’worked her usual spell of subtle and not so subtle observations – get drawn into her busy domestic world. (SPOILER ALERT) She realises this is her real life & real self & she made the right choice – becomes the person she is. Very moving last chapter. Poppy’s 100th birthday – set piece of social manners. Poppy’s beautiful monologue about what it is to be alive: ‘the smell of radiator dust on a winter morning, the taste of hot maple syrup…’

I have always maintained that it is the elegance of her prose which affects the reader; her ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Beautiful thoughts run down into the fingers which hold the pen and shape the elegant letters. This is confirmed by her handwriting of which I am proud to say I have a small example.

I feel a great loyalty to Anne Tyler especially as she wrote back to me after I sent her a fan letter in 1993, care of the university where she did some teaching. I received a handwritten card (just look at the beautiful tiny neat hand) from her home address in Baltimore. I had written to tell her about Roddy Doyle’s comments at a book launch of his Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which I attended. He had expressed his admiration for her writing when asked by a member of audience what
he liked reading. A kindred spirit, I thought, as no one else seemed to be reading Tyler. I thought she might like to know what effect she had on people the other side of the Atlantic.

Other favourite North American writers: Carole Shields Happenstance and Unless; Joyce Carol Oates Blackwater (about the not so heavily disguised incident on Chappaquiddick Island when Mary Jo Kopechne’s died in the road accident caused by Teddy Kennedy) and Blonde (amazing book about the life of Marilyn Monroe);  Walter Mosely, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned and  with his wonderful character Socrates Fortelow; Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books and Paul Auster, New York Trilogy.

Such rich seams of American literature still to mine.


©Dee La Vardera 24/01/2010