From the beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning author–now in the fiftieth year of her remarkable career–a brilliantly observed, joyful and wrenching, funny and true new novel that reveals, as only she can, the very nature of a family’s life.
“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon.” This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The whole family–their two daughters and two sons, their grandchildren, even their faithful old dog–is on the porch, listening contentedly as Abby tells the tale they have heard so many times before. And yet this gathering is different too: Abby and Red are growing older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them, and the fate of the house so lovingly built by Red’s father. Brimming with the luminous insight, humor, and compassion that are Anne Tyler’s hallmarks, this capacious novel takes us across three generations of the Whitshanks, their shared stories and long-held secrets, all the unguarded and richly lived moments that combine to define who and what they are as a family. – Goodreads
There’s no denying that Anne Tyler can string words and sentences together beautifully. In this, her 20th (and final) novel, Tyler delicately unfurls the story of the Whitshank family – all three generations of it – who inhabited the beautiful house built by the family patriarch, Junior Whitshank.
Though not told chronologically, the book catalogues the daily lives of Junior and his wife, Linnie Mae, their son Red and his wife Abby (who take over the house) and finally their children, Stem, Denny, Amanda and Jeannie. We learn about how Junior and his wife Linnie came to Baltimore and how Junior built, fell in love with and eventually purchased the Whitshank house. We get to know Red and Abby (especially Abby) as they settle into retirement and try to maintain their relationships with their now-grown children. And we learn the secrets that each is hiding from one another, and the toll these secrets take.
I’d never read any of Tyler’s books before this, so I don’t know if this detailed character development is her particular writing signature or if this book was unique. I can tell you that I’ve rarely come across a book quite like this. Tyler’s writing shows her experience as a writer and a particular attention to detail that make it objectively flawless.
From a personal perspective, however, I have to admit that I struggled a bit with this book. It moved so slowly that even when major plot events occurred, it still felt like not much was happening. By itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I have read and loved many books that focus on the mundane to create a compelling, character-based story (Barbara Pym’s books come to mind). I think the problem for me was that while it was fascinating to delve into the Whitshanks’ lives to such an extent, I can’t say I enjoyed these particular characters. Which makes all the difference when the characters are the focus of the book. Even in the more likable characters, unpleasant or annoying character traits were revealed as the book progressed. They turned out to be by turns selfish, snobby, oblivious, unreliable and critical. As much as these ugly aspects are part of every person, and a realistic part of any family, it made for difficult reading at times.
As I said before, this isn’t an action-packed book. It’s a book best suited to readers who are fascinated by the opportunity to peek into other people’s lives, see what it’s like behind their closed doors and figure out what makes them tick. It’s a study in the unerring fact that people are never exactly what you imagine them to be – even your own family. And Tyler’s writing will cause you to pause at times to re-read a particularly insightful or well-written passage, like this one:
But still, you know how it is when you’re missing a loved one. You try to turn every stranger into the person you were hoping for. You hear a certain piece of music and right away you tell yourself that he could have changed his clothing style, could have gained a ton of weight, could have acquired a car and then parked that car in front of another family’s house. “It’s him!” you say. “He came! We knew he would; we always…” But then you hear how pathetic you sound, and your words trail off into silence, and your heart breaks. – p. 39
If you’re a fan of Tyler or enjoy learning the details (for better and worse) of a family tree, you’ll find this book to be right up your alley.
Author: Anne Tyler
Published By: Bond Street Books
Released: February 10, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Character-Driven, Family
Date Read: February 4-14, 2015