Anne Tyler Tyler, Anne (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tyler, Anne 1941–

Tyler is an American novelist and short story writer. Her fiction is generally concerned with familial relations and focuses on the themes of isolation, thwarted ideals, and the problem of communication between individuals. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Jim Hunter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[At the end of] The Clock-Winder, the domestic settlement and content which have been achieved are seen slightly distanced, through the subdued distress of Peter, hitherto offstage. 'He's just back from Vietnam,' they say of him. 'Everyone murmured, as if that explained things.'

Miss Tyler's book is quite apolitical…. [It] is warmly and shrewdly written, the characters are persuasive, and there is a salutary sense that bourgeois life is not necessarily rotten to the core. The novel will give pleasure and perhaps restoration to its readers, who will be mostly middle-aged and middle-class: and it has every right to do so. Nevertheless, for a writer as alert as Miss Tyler evidently is to produce a book as graceful and cheering as this does involve some sort of withdrawal from horrors of which non-fictional Americans today are not allowed to be unaware, and the inspiration which shows us the happy ending through the cool eyes of the war veteran was perhaps a twinge of conscience. (p. 157)

Jim Hunter, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1973; reprinted by permission of Jim Hunter), February 1, 1973.

Lynn Sharon Schwartz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The family as a sealed unit, with an imperious grip on its members through the twin traps of heredity and environment, is the subject of [Searching for Caleb]…. The Pecks, a well-to-do Baltimore clan, are skillfully traced from the founding father down four generations to the single young descendant. The shape of the family tree, as one character notes, is a diamond. Outsiders brought in by marriage do not thrive: the insular Peck personality, a mélange of mediocrity, loyalty, emotional evasion, and impeccable respectability, smothers them or drives them away. In a wry reversal of the thesis that "you can't go home again," Searching for Caleb asks instead whether you can ever really get away. The Peck renegades, after the trauma of breaking family ties, are left passive, dry, and remote—still dominated, it would seem, by the tyranny of chromosomes.

Anne Tyler's tone is understated, ironic, and elliptical, which suits her characters well. Searching for Caleb rarely gives us heights and depths of emotion or the excitement of discovery, but it does offer the very welcome old-fashioned virtues of a patient, thoughtful chronicle. (p. 28)

Lynn Sharon Schwartz, in Saturday Review (© 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 6, 1976.

Walter Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anne Tyler goes at her work with as much gusto as Margaret Drabble, but on a smaller scale and in a style that is more tightly controlled. Miss Tyler has learned a great deal about her craft … since her first novel was published, but she has retained a kind of innocence in her view of life, a sense of wonder at all the crazy things in the world and an abiding affection for her own flaky characters. (p. 120)

Miss Tyler is concerned with the quality of human existence. She turns her characters loose to live as they will, and the choice that each makes is a testimony to life's infinite variety…. [In addition to profundities,] there is joy in the surface, the remarkable accuracy with which Miss Tyler depicts the world, the unobtrusiveness of her technical skill, and the wit and perception with which she creates her people and establishes her conflicts. Within the boundaries she has set for herself she is almost totally successful. (pp. 121-22)

Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Winter, 1977.

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Earthly Possessions" … is just another one of those slightly stale, wry books that so many women writers seem to be turning out: A heroine who is a rueful optimist or cheerful pessimist, takes us on a long walk through the world in order to point out its incongruities. A Michelin guide to desolate panoramas, dismal accommodations, poor fare. A woman laughing out of the other side of her mouth….

Charlotte is the nearest thing to a character in "Earthly Possessions," yet she is only a hope chest of negatives, a woman on the run from boredom toward an empty ambiguity. Her mother and father are the caricatures we have come to expect from contemporary fiction, what E. M. Forster called "flat characters." Her father silently takes old-fashioned formal pictures of the people in his small town and her mother is merely fat, as if she could make up in quantity what she lacks in quality. There is nobody in the book for Charlotte to bounce off and so she merely rolls around until she stops. (p. 12)

Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 8, 1977.

Roger Sale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I was born right here in Clarion; I grew up in that big brown turreted house next to Percy's Texaco. My mother was a fat lady who used to teach first grade. Her maiden name was Lacey Dabney.

This paragraph opens the second chapter of Anne Tyler's Earthly Possessions, and it is very arch. What do I know about "that" house, or Clarion, or Percy, that I should be thus invited in; if I accept the invitation, what can I make of someone who calls her mother "a fat lady," or who imagines, without seeming herself to care, that I need to know the fat lady's maiden name? Nor do matters improve when she starts speaking of herself:

These were my two main worries when I was a child: one was that I was not their true daughter, and would be sent away. The other was that I was their true daughter and would never, ever manage to escape to the outside world.

Thus twelve years, or, as it turns out, thirty-five, of Charlotte Emory's life are reduced to a cartoon, and by her own hand, the possible anguish is then lost.

If what Anne Tyler had intended were a cartoon, then all might be well…. [But] Earthly Possessions, at least in its best moments, is a straightforward realistic novel about Charlotte Emory's abduction by Jake Simms, a pathetic young man who is trying to rob a bank just as Charlotte is standing...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Gilberto Perez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anne Tyler's Earthly Possessions is written in the first person, the narrator a housewife of thirty-five who, having lived all her life in the same house in Clarion, Maryland, informs us in the first sentence of the book that she has decided to leave her husband. Just as she is about to get cash for the trip, she is kidnapped by a bank robber…. [The] character's own assessment of her situation [is that of an] outrageous joke. Miss Tyler does well a peculiarly feminine mode of self-belittling, sardonic humor, something like Carol Burnett's. (p. 611)

I'm not sure Miss Tyler is aware that the alternating chapters of [Earthly Possessions], though all in the first person, are really in two different voices: the retrospective and the eyewitness first person, one may call them. We accept the convention, in an eyewitness account of ongoing events, that the narrator will come to find out things unexpected at the beginning, as indeed Charlotte does in her experience with the bank robber. But in a retrospective account, a summing up of past events from the perspective of the present, we feel cheated unless we get some sense all along that the narrator knows how things will turn out. (p. 612)

Gilberto Perez, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1977 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXX, No. 4, Winter, 1977–78.