The meaning of A Slipping-Down Life is easily ascertained without being simplistic. It concerns the major conflict of adolescence—the quest for acceptance and identity. In the main character’s journey in coming-of-age, this quest is clearly the central issue, but it is complicated by many other side issues: the pain of being classified as “different” from the peer group, the need for familial closeness, the problems of teen marriage, and even the stigma of physical disfigurement. A Slipping-Down Life is a novel of learning and growth that offers readers hope that, regardless of the level of isolation or the enormity of problems and while perfect happy endings are not reality, strength and a feeling of self-worth can be the by-products of adversity.
One of the two pivotal moments of the story is the revelation that Evie has carved the name “Casey” into her forehead. Prior to this moment, the reader has been introduced to an overweight, lackluster girl who feels awkward with herself and others and is seemingly incapable of making social connections. The carving is representative of the desperate measures to which some adolescents will resort when faced with alienation. It is the ultimate act of seeking identity through others, as well as a taking of power. (It is impossible for Drum to deny her completely with such a visible link between them.) The act is also a complete denial of self in a submersion into the identity of another person.
As time passes and Evie moves through her connection to Drum, including the unraveling of their marriage, the scars from the carving fade just as Evie’s need to find identity in another person diminishes. With the death of her father and the impending birth of her child, Evie is symbolically putting away the past and stepping into maturity. Although the failure of her marriage denies a traditional happy ending, Evie has her second pivotal moment when she denies that she carved her own forehead; blaming someone else when she obviously performed the act herself implies that she sees herself as a new person, removed from that sense of desperation.
Although lacking the grittier bleakness of realism that Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) would soon usher into young adult fiction, A Slipping-Down Life does avoid the pitfalls of the overly simplistic juvenile story, with its easy answers, that was the norm at its time of publication. While Anne Tyler’s later works are generally intended for an older audience, her books overwhelmingly explore the female search for identity, and her juvenile heroine clears the way for the strong young heroines of later 1970’s young adult fiction, such as those of Judy Blume. While not choosing to remain a writer in today’s realistic juvenile literature, Tyler can be said to be a pioneer in the movement.