People in Anne Tyler novels do the strangest things—“do” in that American English sense of the word in which one is what one “does.” InSaint Maybe, Tyler showed her readers a clutter counselor, whilePatchwork Planet featured the Rent-a-Back service. Reading Anne Tyler can make the yellow pages of the phone book a new and exciting place again; did she really make that up? Are there really no clutter counselors listed? Back When We Were Grownups introduces the Davitches and their formerly grand but now run-down home, “The Open Arms,” which they operate as a sort of hospitality establishment, renting it out to those who want to throw a party in a location short of “grand” but fancier (and smaller) than a VFW hall.
Because of her light, sure touch, readers who notice Tyler’s corrections to reality are likely to accept them as matter-of-factly as her characters themselves do. That is fine, but it would be a pity to miss her delight in the creativity people use to weave together a life for themselves. Even easier to overlook, though, is the near despair so many of her characters keep at bay with their activities as they encounter the sense that their life, family, and work has been spun out of pure air. This middle-aged crisis of meaning has been at the core of most of her work since Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)—just as her first novel,If Morning Ever Comes (1964), was about youthful crisis of meaning—and it has never been a richer source of material than it is in Back When We Were Grownups.
In a way, this novel is an attempt to finish something Tyler began inLadder of Years (1995). The heroine of that novel, Delia, a frustrated housewife who abruptly, almost whimsically leaves her family to fall into a domestic situation exactly like the one she had left behind, is less than entirely believable. The earlier novel had to wrestle with a deep contradiction: Its plot depended on its character committing an essentially selfish act (leaving her family without any warning), but Anne Tyler’s writing depends upon the reader basically liking her characters. Though she is presented in a typically warm and observant Anne Tyler fashion, the reader had to assume a basic shallowness underlying Delia’s unsuccessful and unproductive declaration of independence (a shallowness her daughter’s fiancé points to in a bit of dialogue that sounds suspiciously like an author trying to beat the critics to the punch). Written with a plot absolutely dependent upon the feminism that passed Delia by, the novel settled for her learning to stand up to her manipulative doctor-husband. That is not nothing, but it is not quite enough either.
Thus, it is perhaps with a sense of an unfulfilled mission that in When We Were Grownnups Anne Tyler revisits the country of middle-aged women living domestic lives, who fear that life may have passed them by. Though Tyler has never created female characters that were unintelligent, most of her characters do not define themselves by their intellect. By and large, they define themselves with an intelligence of the heart and spirit that they use to find meaning in the world around them. Rebecca Davitch is no exception to this rule, but she has not quite accepted who she is. A woman who as a youth defined herself by her sense of intellect and purpose, Rebecca was swept off her feet while still a college student by Joe Davitch, a father and divorcé who, because he meets her at a party when she happens to be smiling, constructs an identity for her as a happy, good-natured woman. The cheerful, peppy organizer he believes he has found is the woman she tries to become. Long after Joe’s death, she wonders, who is this woman he nicknamed “Beck,” and whatever happened to “Rebecca”?
Tyler has always had a precise touch for comedy of social gatherings. Her novel begins with a picnic at which...
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