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Anne Tyler 1941–
American novelist, short story writer, and critic.
Tyler is noted as a writer of finely crafted fiction which is straightforward and realistic, yet lyrical. She achieves subtle, sometimes somber, effects of pathos or comedy through her precise choice of words. Tyler is especially adept at depicting tense family situations that result in lonely, confused members who long for meaning and understanding. Critics point out that she is representative of a new generation of Southern writers. Tyler tends toward restrained rather than dramatic effects and her characters do not react in bizarre or grotesque ways to their emotional isolation. Like the characters of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, Tyler's people are heavily influenced by the past, but it is a personal, familial history, rather than a social one, which shapes them.
With her first two novels, If Morning Ever Comes (1964) and The Tin Can Tree (1965), Tyler established a reputation as a young novelist with an unusual command of her craft. Critics were especially impressed with her ability to describe setting, to characterize, and to create realistic dialogue while maintaining a spare and polished prose style. In subsequent works she has grown increasingly ambitious, creating more eccentric and imaginative characters and extending the time span of her stories to include several generations. In all of her works, Tyler's major concern is with the difficulties of human relationships and she focuses on individuals within large families whose members feel alienated from each other. Many critics have praised Tyler for examining the effects that family members have on each other's lives. Others suggest that Tyler has limited herself by not exploring the role that society plays in the shaping of personality.
Tyler's recent novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), has been acclaimed as her most accomplished work. Many critics maintain that it clearly establishes her as a major figure in American literature. As insightful, sensitive, and well-made as her previous works, this novel achieves greater depth through the complexity of its narrative structure. By juxtaposing the personalities of her six central characters and their outlooks on the present and the past, Tyler makes poignant observations on the benefits and limitations of family life.
(See also CLC, Vols. 7, 11, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 11; Something about the Author, Vol. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Year book: 1982.)
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In her first novel, "If Morning Ever Comes," 22-year-old Anne Tyler has written a subtle and surprisingly mature story about the lack of communication between human beings, of a man's essential isolation from the world—and especially and more poignantly from his own family.Ben Joe Hawkes returns to his North Carolina hometown from New York—where, as a law student at Columbia University, he has been suffering the chills of the city's loneliness. Not that the emotional climate in Carolina is much warmer. Though he enjoys feeling responsible for his family, a widowed mother, a grandmother, six sisters (one of whom, the bright and flirtatious Joanne, has left her husband and returned home), they are astonishingly self-contained. From Susannah, who works in the library, to 10-year-old Tessie, the Hawkes women are as cool and crisp as starched petticoats and as able to stand by themselves. One can assume they inherit their restraint from their mother, whose own chilling ways led her husband to set up another household on the wrong side of town….
Why Ellen Hawkes froze her husband from her house remains a mystery, since she never comments on the past. Indeed, she steadily refuses to involve herself even in the affairs of her children—when, like Ben Joe, they cry out for some sign of love, a token of caring. When he inquires about Joanne's shattered marriage, his mother brusquely warns him against meddling in another's life. Though no reason is offered for her coldness, its effects are clear. Ben Joe's sisters bear the scars of her detachment, just as he is marked with a lack of commitment to life. "I don't guess you're hardly alive if you're as reversible as I am," says Ben Joe to his high-school sweet-heart, Shelley, with whom he renews his acquaintance. Shelley, plain, pinched, the girl no football player ever asked for a date, has no one to care for her. For all his bustling family, Ben Joe finally comes to realize that his own situation is identical.
In a touching finale, they prepare to make a life for themselves in New York. Although he can foresee the limitations of a future with Shelley, he can also savor the warmth and constancy of her affection….
Miss Tyler, who grew up in North Carolina, writes well, selecting with care the details which distill small-town life. "If Morning Ever Comes" is written in a minor key about minor characters. Nothing momentous happens; there's scarcely a raised tone in the book. The pace is far too slow: scenes take too long to evolve, and when they do they reveal only incompletely the story yet to be told. For all this, Miss Tyler has written a meaningful book. She has brought to it a delicate sense of emotional isolation—and a hero who, however blighted by his past, proceeds with dignity to count for something in somebody's life.
Rollene W. Saal, "Loveless Household," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 22, 1964, p. 52.
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Several Southern novels have come out in the past year or so which bear little resemblance to earlier literary legends of the South.
These novels are not about the Tobacco Roads of 40 years ago. Nor do they dwell consciously on the dynamics of Negro-white relationships. Instead they reflect a South not so very different from small-town society anywhere in the United States. As the old agrarian South has become part of the past, life since World War II has grown to be more and more middle-class.
Significantly, these "new" Southern novels are written by the younger, post-war generation. Anne Tyler is a product of this generation. Her first novel ["If Morning Ever Comes"] is set in fictitious Sandill in busily industrializing North Carolina….
The reader must discard any romanticized picture of the South. There is no abject poverty here. Neither is there any remnant of aristocracy. Sitting quietly, unsensationally in their place is the family of Ben Joe Hawkes—the kind of small-town life Miss Tyler knows well.
With poignancy and humor, this young novelist conveys the responses of a college student living among a sea of women—a flock of independent sisters, a proud mother, and an incorrigible grandmother. The head of the household, feeling somehow responsible for the women, Ben Joe leaves Columbia University to make an impulsive trip home….
Who handles the family's finances? Who does the shopping? Why are the sisters up all times of night, wandering outside and inside the house? One sister has just left her husband. Father left mother years back for another woman.
Yet in all this confusion—or is it really?—the women are not only surviving but persevering, caught up in the business of day-to-day living.
His long weekend exhausted, realizing his uselessness, Ben Joe returns to college. With a sweet touch of irony, he takes with him a remnant of his youth.
This small book is certainly not wrought with the drama or melodrama of earlier Southern novels. But its simplicity and rare sensitivity to the everyday make Anne Tyler's novel worth reading.
John Allan Long, "'New' Southern Novel," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1965 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), January 21, 1965, p. 9.
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The fact that 24-year-old Anne Tyler … grew up in Raleigh, N.C., must seem to her significant enough to make her publishers note on the jacket of ["The Tin Can Tree"] that she "considers herself a Southerner." And this novel, in so far as it goes in for regional subject matter, does report upon life in still another rural Southern pocket. Her characters are the eight inhabitants of a three-family house on the edge of backwater tobacco fields—two bachelor brothers, two spinster sisters and the Pike family, whose small daughter has just been killed in a tractor accident when the book opens.
There are, indeed, some fine scenes and sounds of a regional sort, especially in one chapter in which a group of women talk over the Pike tragedy while tying tobacco. Here, as elsewhere in the book, she makes use of a nice specificity of local detail and neatly captures the casual and yet complex movement of Southern rural speech with its indirections and interruptions, its reticences and awkwardnesses which manage to express emotion.
Yet rurality and Southernism are not really Miss Tyler's chief interest. Despite some obvious debts to the tradition of the Southern novel, she has none of the Faulknerian anguish over a present rooted in past wrongs. Nor does she share the late Flannery O'Connor's sense of a religious soil out of which characters are thrust forth into the withering present, taking grotesque and tragic shape—though Miss O'Connor's style, with its austere notation of scene and dialogue, may have taught her to make an eloquence of spareness. If she reminds me of anyone, it may be the Carson McCullers of 25 years ago—who, then as young as Miss Tyler, also wrote of human disconnection and the need for love in a stagnant community.
Carson McCullers herself, of course, was only in part a regional writer. Her gothic tales of loneliness and inchoate longing carried on the mood and themes of Sherwood Anderson among the older generation of American writers. Thinking back that far we discover the significant precursor for Miss Tyler's story. More a vignette than a novel, it glances at lives twisted by inhibition and loneliness, gnarled like frostbitten apples (Anderson's metaphor) because the sap of community has grown thin….
Like [Anderson's] Winesburg stories, "The Tin Can Tree" shows us human beings frozen into fixed postures. And James, it happens, is a photographer whose snapshots have a way of capturing people in characteristic single attitudes—Ansel reclining on a couch, his hand idly playing with the window shade, Jane in a dust storm which makes her look like a ghost….
Life, this young writer seems to be saying, achieves its once-and-for-all shape and then the camera clicks. This view, which brings her characters back on the last page to where they started, does not make for that sense of development which is the true novel's motive force. Because of it, I think, her book remains a sketch, a description, a snapshot. But as such, it still has a certain dry clarity. And the hand that has clicked its shutter has selected a moment of truth.
Millicent Bell, "Tobacco Road Updated," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 21, 1965, p. 77.
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Writers are rare who can swiftly generate a story with instantly distinguishable characters and the prospect of development. Rarer still is the fiction artist who controls his material with such subtle dexterity that his presence is barely felt. To do so is essentially the dramatist's craft, normally mastered in middle age, when the artist is exhausted of illusions that any part of the world spins at the lashing of his single will and when he is ripe in his understanding of the inherent mechanism of things. It requires an eye, an ear and a knowledge of character. Remarkably, Anne Tyler, at the age of 24, has now produced two novels ["If Morning Ever Comes" and "The Tin Can Tree"] that display her understanding of the dramatic mode, as distinct from the lyrical.
Her second book, "The Tin Can Tree" tells a story that seems unpromisingly slight in summary. Janie Rose Pike, a plump, strong-willed 10-year-old girl, has been killed in a tractor accident just before the novel begins. The waves of this barely audible "plunk" in the universe wash over the members of her family and the people of a small Southern community whose emotional lives are intertwined with theirs.
Janie Rose's mother submerges herself in numb grief. The vacuum she creates sucks her husband and Joan, a niece who lives with them, out of their accustomed channels, and leaves her son Simon alone, perplexed and foundering. The changes in Simon and Joan disorient Ansel and James Green, two brothers who inhabit the same three-family dwelling. And further from the vortex, the entire community in which the Pikes live detects the change, and alters its course.
Simon, half from a child's distressed need to regain his mother's attention and half from an adolescent desire to exploit the opportunity to explore new oceans, runs away from home to a town half an hour away. His disappearance draws Mrs. Pike back to the surface, and the balance of emotional dependencies is restored.
Equilibrium, disruption, crisis, response, equilibrium restored: a time-worn dramatic formula. But Miss Tyler's simple descriptive passages, her spare but telling dialogue and her deft touches of characterization are so effortless, so even in perspective, so jointlessly integrated, that the landscape and people of her novel are virtually palpable….
In "The Tin Can Tree," Miss Tyler has selected material slight enough to be controlled completely, and squeezed more emotional power from it than one would have thought it contained. One hopes that her grasp of material will grow and that her power to squeeze will grow proportionally. She will then surely avoid the fate of the growing band of Southern writers adept at staging the dramas of grown-up children, who are enjoyed as charming entertainers and dismissed as such.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "A Small Pebble with a Big Splash," in The New York Times (copyright © 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 23, 1965, p. L25.
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[The Clock Winder seems to have] many of the virtues that we associate with "southern" writing—an easy, almost confidential directness, fine skill at quick characterization, a sure eye for atmosphere, and a special nostalgic humor—and none of its liabilities—sentimentality, a sometimes cloying innocence wise beyond its pretense, a tendency toward over-rich metaphor. The title character is 20-year-old Elizabeth, a strong figure who is both oddly timeless and perfectly contemporary; she arrives vaguely from Ellington, North Carolina, to manage and eventually become a loving part of the lives of an eccentric but not very unusual Baltimore family who have enormous and even agonizing trouble relating to one another….
If the result smacks of a group of hurt and inept people propping one another up to live a bearable, cozy life—another quality, come to think of it, of "southern" writing—it's neither sentimental nor intrusive enough to detract from the strength of its delightful heroine: Elizabeth, in her ashamed passivity, her struggle against it, her bursts of energy and what prevents them, her wry, open humor, is a recognizable and even memorable character who encompasses many of the contradictions that women are seeking to resolve today. And the author has created a group of minor characters to surround her who ring absolutely true. Anne Tyler has a special talent; she is a solid writer with real skill, but modest about her reach.
Sara Blackburn, in a review of "The Clock Winder," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1972 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), May 14, 1972, p. 13.
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[Anne Tyler] writes of lonely, unhappy, confused individuals who seek meaning, comfort, and a bit of human understanding and contact. Her closest progenitor is Carson McCullers, but I find Miss Tyler's work to be more wistful, delicate, and touching.
In ["The Clock Winder"] one can not only witness and understand the incredible difficulty of human relationships but also the ambivalent burdens of family life. Parents cannot understand their children, and children cannot understand their parents. "Why," asks the aged Mrs. Emerson, "are my children always leaving?" and "Why are they always coming back?" Advancing age on all sides further complicates the situation. Miss Tyler has probed this puzzle maturely and carefully and continually conveys much of the mystery, the loneliness, and the aloneness of existence. Her art is quiet, delicate, sensitive, and acutely tender. She is not cheaply sensational and artifically flamboyant, and in this day and age I could pay no higher compliment. Readers who appreciate depth of perception, thoughtful analysis of life and people, and a graceful, fresh prose style will enjoy and meditate. "The Clock Winder" is one of Miss Tyler's best novels which is to say that it is one of the most perceptive novels written in America in several years. (p. 149)
Paul A. Doyle, in a review of "The Clock Winder," in Best Sellers (copyright 1972, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 32, No. 6, June 15, 1972, pp. 148-49.
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New work by a young writer who's both greatly gifted and prolific often points readers' minds toward the future. You finish the book and immediately begin speculating about works to come—achievements down the road that will cross the borders defined by the work at hand. Anne Tyler's books have been having this effect on me for nearly a decade. Repeatedly they've been brilliant—"wickedly good," as John Updike recently described one of them. "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" is Anne Tyler's ninth novel; her career began in 1964 with a fully realized first novel (the title was "If Morning Ever Comes," and there are piquant links between it and her latest book); everything I've read of hers since then—stories, novels and criticism (Anne Tyler is a first-rate critic, shrewd and self-effacing)—has been, at a minimum, interesting and well made. But in recent years her narratives have grown bolder and her characters more striking, and that's increased the temptation to brood about her direction and destination, her probable ultimate achievement.
The time for such brooding is over now, though—at least for a while. "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" is a book to be settled into fully, tomorrow be damned. Funny, heart-hammering, wise, it edges deep into truth that's simultaneously (and interdependently) psychological, moral and formal—deeper than many living novelists of serious reputation have penetrated, deeper than Miss Tyler herself has gone before. It is a border crossing.
The setting, as in many of this author's fictions, is Baltimore. The focus at first is Pearl Tull, 85 and dying, whose ruminations on her sickbed center partly on a moment 35 years before, when her husband, Beck Tull, a traveling salesman, announced he was clearing out for good; partly on the years of ferocious labor that followed this catastrophe ("an out-of-date kind of woman, frail boned, deep bosomed," more or less gently bred, Pearl went to work as a grocery-store checkout clerk, toughened her provisioning skills, struggled to nurture and civilize the three children she'd had with her husband in her late 30's); partly on the mystery of the character of those youngsters, persons who are approaching middle age as their mother approaches her end. (pp. 1, 14)
On its face "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" is a book about the costs of parental truancy (a subject that surfaces in Miss Tyler's first novel and elsewhere frequently in her oeuvre). None of the three Tull children manages to cut loose from the family past; each is, to a degree, stunted; each turns for help to Pearl Tull in an hour of desperate adult need; and Pearl's conviction that something's wrong with each of them never recedes from the reader's consciousness. But no small measure of the book's subtlety derives from its exceptional—and exceptionally wise, the word bears repeating—clarity about the uselessness of cost accounting in human areas such as these. Cody Tull suffers from obscure guilt (was it something I said, something I did that made my father go away?). Ezra Tull suffers from want of desire. Jenny Tull suffers from fear of connection. And the behavior and feelings of all three are linked somehow with the terrible, never-explained rupture: their father's disappearance.
But it's also the case that what is best in each of these people, as in their mother, has its roots in the experience of deprivation that they jointly despise. Jenny's outward exuberance flows from instinctive knowledge of how overwhelming the need for cheer can be among young or old. Ezra's movingly unconsidered kindness and generosity have a similar source. Even Cody, who for much of the story is perceived as an enemy of light, emerges at the end as a man elevated by what he's obliquely learned from his father's irresponsibility.
Adversity teaches? We advance well beyond that truism in "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant." We arrive at an understanding that the important lessons taught by adversity never quite make themselves known to the consciousness of the learners—remain hidden, inexpressible. Outsiders stumble on them sometimes, and behave in their innocence as though the lessons couldn't be missed—but oh yes they can….
Much as I've admired Miss Tyler's earlier books, I've found flaws in a few—something excessively static in the situation developed in "Morgan's Passing," for instance, something arbitrary in the plotting of "Earthly Possessions." But in the work at hand Miss Tyler is a genius plotter, effortlessly redefining her story questions from page to page, never slackening the lines of suspense. There are, furthermore, numberless explosions of hilarity, not one of which (I discover) can be sliced out of its context for quotation—so tightly fashioned is this tale—without giving away, as they say, a narrative climax. There are scenes that strike me as likely to prove unforgettable; Pearl Tull attempting, after years of silence on the matter, to explain to her adamantly inattentive children that their father isn't coming back; Jenny Tull revising and revising, as though aiming at a masterpiece in the mode of the laconic-sublime, a letter accepting a marriage proposal; Cody Tull declaring his suspicion to his wife that his brother is the father of their son; and many more….
Seriousness does insist, in the end, that explicit note be taken of the facts of this career. Anne Tyler turned 40 just last year. She's worked with a variety of materials, established her mastery of grave as well as comic tones. Her command of her art is sure, and her right to trust her feeling for the complications both of our nature and of our nurturing arrangements stands beyond question. Speculating about this artist's future is, in short, a perfectly natural movement of mind. But, as I said before, I'm reluctant to speculate, and I expect other readers, in quantity, will share my reluctance. What one wants to do on finishing such a work as "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" is maintain balance, keep things intact for a stretch, stay under the spell as long as feasible. The before and after are immaterial; nothing counts except the knowledge, solid and serene, that's all at once breathing in the room. We're speaking, obviously, about an extremely beautiful book. (p. 14)
Benjamin DeMott, "Funny, Wise and True," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 14, 1982, pp. 1, 14.
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Good writers often have preoccupations. Sets of characters or pieces of experience repeat themselves in book after book because an idea of life is being obsessed over. If a reader is responsive to the preoccupation, each new book deepens the tale being told. If a reader is not responsive, the writer is silently instructed: "Tell another story, you've told this one already."
Anne Tyler is a writer with a preoccupation. Writing in a time and place that is stimulated by the idea of the separately maturing self, Tyler's novels are relentlessly devoted to the idea of never growing up, never leaving home. Not only do her characters refuse to leave their parents' houses, they inevitably marry surrogate brothers or sisters whom they pull into the house as well—whereupon they become their parents without even becoming men or women. In Tyler's world there is neither terror nor rapture because there is no sex. Instead, there is an endless child-parent interchange prolonged into listless adulthood: the only refuge is in a kind of acted-out fantasy commonly referred to as making magic.
Tyler has real feeling for the condition she describes, and sympathizes keenly with her characters as they burrow back into childhood. It is this sympathy, above all, that makes her such a fine writer. Her gift for dialogue and narration is prodigious—she skillfully stitches her prose from a single, mysteriously lengthening thread into landscape, densely made, fully peopled—but it is the sympathy that allows her to achieve genuine pathos. Pathos is the dominant color in each of her novels, woven strongly through the design of her writing—warm, repetitious, predictable, somewhat like the comforting familiarity of an ironic home sampler.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is Anne Tyler's ninth novel in 18 years. The character of its prose, the quality of its invention, the inevitability of its conclusion can easily be traced to her early work—that's how stable the inner experience in Tyler's writing is. As the years pass, this experience seems to dig in, insist upon itself, and here, in The Homesick Restaurant it stands its ground, weighted and immovable, achieving a curious self-command through the integrity of its stubbornness.
Most of Tyler's novels are set in or near an unreal city called Baltimore (a cardboard backdrop; it could be Anytown, USA). On a residential street in a once-good section of town, in a shabby frame house whose foundations are settling and whose paint is peeling, there lives a family named Peck or Gower or Emory. There are many people in the family—mothers, fathers, in-laws and grandparents, aunts and uncles, children growing up, others grown and returned home—pack rats every one of them. The house is piled floor to ceiling with books, toys, furniture, clothing, objects of every size, description, and meaning; physical dishevelment alone makes life inside the house a three-ring circus.
At the same time that they collect everything in sight, Tyler families seem always to be drifting. The tension, of course, is between staying put and running off, and in every Tyler novel one character or another does run off—a traveling-salesman husband who deserts the family, a brother who leaves to become a jazz musician, a mother who elopes with an inappropriate relative. Fairs, carnivals, circuses, traveling shows abound; people endlessly try to recapture that last moment before life got hopelessly bogged down. Meanwhile, the ones who remain behind eat the most amazing amount of junk food. I know of no other novelist whose 45-year-old men and women are forever eating Fritos and Baby Ruths and drinking Yoo-hoos.
Inevitably, one of those who stay put will detach from the group, adopt a narrative voice of dazed and slightly fantastical confusion, and guide us through a 300-page Tyler happening: a picaresque chronicle of the satisfying sadnesses of family life invariably described as warm, magical, funny, and wise. (p. 40)
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the best of Anne Tyler's novels. It is free of "magical" invention and strikingly direct in communicating the depression behind the adopted whimsy of her middle books. No longer young, but not yet free from her preoccupation of 20 years, Tyler now stares openly into the emotional arrest that is her true, her only subject.
Again Baltimore, again a family, again one who ran off and many who stayed. Pearl Tull lives on in a seedy frame house with her three children (Cody, Ezra, Jenny) after Beck, her traveling salesman husband, leaves—informing her one night that he doesn't want to be married any longer. Pearl has always been angry: now she'll be in a rage until she dies. Her children, traumatized by their need for her love, will flinch before that rage for the rest of their lives, but not one of them will walk away. Tyler makes this inability to leave seem moving and inevitable….
Anne Tyler is held spellbound before the hopeless loss of childhood her characters refuse to accept. She feels the dull pain of that lifelong desire for the normal family no one ever had, understands the psychic bondage in which people far into middle age are held. But Tyler mythicizes the inability to give up the family, and because she does her novels do not achieve depth.
A hundred years ago novelists wrote successfully about family life. A writer could take a group of people, set them down in a country house, move them about from the drawing room to the garden to the upstairs parlor for 30 years, and every time the door closed on two or three of them, pages of charged thought and feeling flowed from the writer's pen. A microcosm of self-discovery was locked up inside those framed, landscaped lives. There are, it seems to me, not many ways a contemporary novel can duplicate that action, insist successfully on that gestalt. Today, if a novel is to dive down into the experience that gives us back to ourselves its people must be up and about in the alien world, struggling to become men and women. The energy that ignites them is sexual in character, not filial.
Tyler's prose is sexually anesthetized—in fact, mass sexual coma prevails in her books—and so the energy it gives off feels fabricated. The warmth is shallow; it is nostalgia being burned, not immediate experience. Ironically, she is beloved precisely because her writing skill invests the ordinary infantilism of American family life with a tender glamour. She allows the middle-brow middle class to love itself for all its poignant insufficiency. A pity: A good writer being rewarded for making a virtue out of the fear of experience. (p. 41)
Vivian Gornick, "Anne Tyler's Arrested Development" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1982), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 13, March 30, 1982, pp. 40-1.
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Every other year or so since 1964, loyal readers pick up their new Anne Tyler novel as they would buy a favored brand of sensible shoe. Each of her nine books is solidly constructed from authentic and durable materials. Yet traditional style and comfort do not necessarily mean dullness. Tyler's characters have character: quirks, odd angles of vision, colorful mean streaks and harmonic longings. They usually live in ordinary settings, like Baltimore, the author's current home, and do not seem to have been overly influenced by the 7 o'clock news. An issue in a Tyler novel is likely to mean a new child; a cause, the reason behind a malfunction in an appliance or a marriage.
Tyler does not trivialize motives with rationalizations. She launches her imagined lives and describes their trajectories with an unpretentious sense of fate. No explanations are necessary when Beck Tull, a retired traveling salesman, attends the funeral of the wife he left 35 years before and acts as if he has been on a long business trip. This occurs at the end of Homesick Restaurant, and the reader is not surprised. The scene has had careful preparation, and Tull has been well defined by his absence. He is the black hole around which his wife Pearl and children Cody, Jenny and Ezra have had to exist. The novel opens with Pearl Tull, 85, dying and remembering. It then turns effortlessly into a series of chapters about her children that can almost be read as self-contained stories. (p. 77)
Ezra is the dreamer who nurtures the novel's most enduring illusion. He runs a restaurant as if his soups and stews could cure loneliness and disappointment. The permutations of food and woe inspire him: "Why not a restaurant full of refrigerators, where people came and chose the food they wanted?… Or maybe he could install a giant fireplace, with a whole steer turning slowly on a spit. You'd slice what you liked onto your plate and sit around in armchairs eating and talking with the guests at large. Then again, maybe he would start serving only street food. Of course! He'd cook what people felt homesick for."
Ezra's homesick restaurant is not very profitable. It does manage to survive on its owner's terms, which, if one reads Tyler correctly, are worth more than the print-outs of an efficiency expert. Cody, in fact, hates Ezra for his wise foolishness and steals his fiancée. She is a scrawny country girl who unhappily ends up in expensive boxy suits and fancy automobiles. But Ezra is not deterred. A would-be wife turned sister-in-law is still family, and a family should eat together.
The amusing motif of the novel is Ezra Tull's persistent efforts to prepare feasts for his family. They are acts of faith at which courses go untouched. The clan gathers only to eat and run. Even old Beck, sitting down with his children after 35 years, says, "I plan to leave before that dessert wine's poured." Everything has changed; nothing has changed. It is the special satisfaction one gets from Anne Tyler, a writer who knows exactly what to do with leftovers. (p. 78)
R. Z. Sheppard, "Eat and Run," in Time (copyright 1982 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 119, No. 14, April 5, 1982, pp. 77-8.
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'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' is redeemed by its singularity from being yet another three-generation 'Depression to Post-Vietnam' American family saga. True, its coy title smacks of Carson McCullers ('Ballad of the Sad Café'), and the structure—a section for each member of the family, beginning with the ailing, reminiscing mother ('Dying, you don't get to see how it all turns out')—owes something to Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying.' But the writing, like the restaurant's cooking, is deliciously idiosyncratic, enough to make one wish that Anne Tyler were better known over here [in England].
Beck Tull, travelling salesman, runs away from his oppressive wife Pearl, who leads a 'stunted' life, terrorising her three children, 'always wearing her hat when out walking, keeping her doors tightly shut when at home.' The three respond differently to this travesty of 'home.' Saintlike Ezra gives up his girl to his competitive brother Cody, stays with Pearl and runs his Baltimore restaurant like a home, where guests are offered, not what they ask for, but what's good for them. Cody, though he travels farthest from home, is the most locked in rivalry with his vanished father and passive brother; like Iago, he wants revenge on people who are 'just naturally nicer' than he is. Jenny (the least interesting) acquires, as consolation, a warm extended family.
'How plotless real life was!' Ezra says. But, though a random, scatty air is maintained, the novel is almost too neatly ordered, like Pearl's bureau drawers. The dinner that Ezra has throughout been trying to give his family finally takes place, suggesting that 'family life' is inescapable, even life-giving. The flaws, though, aren't fatal: this is a vigorous, funny, original novel.
Hermione Lee, "Heart of Urban Darkness," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), October 3, 1982, p. 33.∗
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1162
Anne Tyler, [like John Cheever], has sought brightness in the ordinary, and her art has needed only the darkening that would give her beautifully sketched shapes solidity. So evenly has her imagination moved across the details of the mundane that the novels, each admirable, sink in the mind without leaving an impression of essential, compulsive subject matter—the phobia portrayed in Celestial Navigation being something of an exception. Now, in [Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant], she has arrived, I think, at a new level of power, and gives us a lucid and delightful yet complex and somber improvisation on her favorite theme, family life. Searching for Caleb is the earlier book it most resembles, in its large cast and historical reach, and even in the perky monosyllabic name assigned the central family: Peck in the first case, Tull in this. Both novels play with the topic (a mighty one, and not often approached in fiction) of heredity—the patterns of eye color and temperamental tic as they speckle the generations. But genetic comedy, in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, deepens into the tragedy of closeness, of familial limitations that work upon us like Greek fates and condemn us to lives of surrender and secret fury. (p. 296)
The Tulls … present a not untypical American family history, marred by abandonment and scattering but redeemed by a certain persisting loyalty and, after early privation, respectable success. And the telling of the Tull saga is soaked through, you may be sure, with all the deft geographical, topical professional, and cultural specifics required to make it stick, from 1903 to 1979, to the landscape of the upper South and to the curve of national life as glimpsed in its wars and fads and fashions. This type of authenticity Anne Tyler has provided consistently; what she has not shown before, so searchingly and grimly, are the violences, ironies, and estrangements within a household, as the easy wounds given dependent flesh refuse to heal and instead grow into lifelong purposes. A bitter narrowness of life is disclosed through all the richness of detail as the decades accumulate, to claustrophobic and sad effect.
The novel leaves Pearl Tull's mind, and chapter by chapter gives us Cody's, Jenny's, Ezra's, and even young Luke's view of the branching consequences of the primal event—Beck Tull's abandonment, as abrupt and mysterious as his courtship, of his wife. In her own mind a doting and heroic mother. Pearl is seen by Cody as a "witch," a terrible-tempered mother who "slammed us against the wall and called us scum and vipers, said she wished us dead, shook us till our teeth rattled, screamed in our faces." Cody's own violences to his placid and harmless younger brother follow suit. Jenny, too, has seen how her mother's "pale hair could crackle electrically from its bun and her eyes could get small as hatpins," has felt her stinging slaps, has dreamed that her mother is raising her to eat her. Even on her deathbed, Pearl calls her children "duckers and dodgers." A perfectionist, a fanatic laundress and housekeeper, she strives to keep her bare clean house free of contamination. She disapproves of her children's friends and has few friends herself; the isolation of this embattled family, in its Baltimore row house, is dreadfully well felt. Of course, all children are somewhat embarrassed by their parents and their homes; Pearl is a witch but also our authentic heroine, and the novel ends with Cody's adolescent vision of her beauty, "his mother's upright form along the grasses, her hair lit gold, her small hands smoothing her bouquet." The paradoxes of the family, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant suggests, include love that must for survival flee its object, and daily communication that masks silence—that deep resentful silence of those who live together. Ezra, the most loving of Pearl's children, yet turns cold-hearted when she falls sick, because, it is explained, "he had trusted his mother to be everything for him. When she cut a finger with a paring knife, he had felt defeated by her incompetence. How could he depend on such a person?" When Luke runs away from home, he is given rides by three persons who all have a horror story of family life uppermost in their minds—infants who die, daughters who are ingrates, wives who leave. The family, that institution meant to shelter our frailty, in fact serves as a theatre for intimate cruelties, and brims with the cruellest of invisible presences, time. As Pearl's memories accumulate in the course of the novel, we become dizzied by the downward perspective into a well of personal history wherein hereditary traits reverberate and snapshots and frozen memories gleam amid the blackness of loss. Pearl, blind in her last years, directs Ezra to describe old photos and read aloud her girlhood diaries. At last, near the bottom of the well, she finds what she has been looking for, the diary entry:
Early this morning I went out behind the house to weed. Was kneeling in the dirt by the stable with my pinafore a mess and the perspiration rolling down my back, wiped my face on my sleeve, reached for the trowel, and all at once thought, Why I believe that at just this moment I am absolutely happy. The Bedloe girl's piano scales were floating out her window, and I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don't care what else might come about, I have had this moment. It belongs to me.
The plot holds a number of such epiphanies and moves its extensive cast agilely along, with flashback and side glance, through ten chapters that are each rounded like a short story. Miss Tyler, whose humane and populous domestic novels have attracted (if my antennae are tuned right) less approval in the literary ether than the sparer offerings of Ann Beattie and Joan Didion, is sometimes charged with the basic literary sin of implausibility. To me, her characters seem persuasive outgrowths of landscapes and states of mind that are familiar and American. The principal characters in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant have their tics but also real psychologies, which make their next moves excitingly unpredictable. It is true, no writer would undertake to fill a canvas so broad without some confidence that she can invent her way across any space, and some of Miss Tyler's swoops, and the delayed illuminations that prick out her tableaux, have not quite the savor of reality's cautious grind. But any reader who picks up a work of fiction enters into a contract whereby he purchases with credulity satisfactions of adventure and resolution that his lived life denies him. This novel does not abuse the terms of that contract; its entertainments become our recognitions. (pp. 297-99)
John Updike, "Bellow, Vonnegut, Tyler, Le Guin, Cheever," in his Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (copyright © 1983 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1983, pp. 247-99.∗