Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1604
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 Rebecca is heroically trying to manipulate the Davitch clan—Joe’s daughters, brother, grandfather, and a host of children, spouses, and one would-be spouse—into at least pretending they are having fun. As all readers and writers of fiction know, the trick to the clear presentation of characters in a social whirlwind is to give them each some distinguishing characteristic—a funny hat, say, or a distinctive name. In the hands of a mediocre writer, this trick shows itself as a trick, but Tyler introduces us to “Patch,” “Biddy,” “NoNo,” “Min Foo” and their family with astonishing grace. Their characteristic tics do not appear to the reader as a collection of funny hats, but as a lifetime’s worth of accumulated baggage with which they have decided to burden the world and, more to the point, Rebecca. How, Rebecca wonders, did she become granddaughter, mother, and sister-in-law to this brood that takes her for granted.
There is a standard comic plot available to all novelists and screenplay writers which essentially consists of a random collection of funny people becoming a family. Tyler has always been a step ahead of this crowd, pointing out that a family is already a random collection of funny people. Here, her character Rebecca, having found her way into this family, asks the question, is there any way back?
The alternate universe that beckons the heroine is the one in which she married her college sweetheart, the man she was dating when she met Joe, and from whom Joe stole her away. What, she wonders, would life with Will Allenby (whom her mother still insists was Rebecca’s true soul mate) have been like? A stray dream of having a son becomes meaningful to her: Her dream son, she decides, that was the boy she was supposed to have with Will. She gives this dream, and the fantasy of a life with Will, full rein of her imagination. What would they have named their son? How would they have brought him up?
When she inevitably looks Will up, the reality is something less than the imagination. The middle-aged Will Allenby is a dour physics professor who is smarting from the other side of rejection from Rebecca. Where Rebecca wants to leave her life behind, Will has been kicked out of his by his ex-wife and mercurial, seventeen-year-old daughter. Living on chili that he makes up every Sunday and divides into seven equal containers, he slowly reveals a cluelessness about life which is heartbreakingly funny. At their first dinner in over thirty years, he defends the tedium of eating the same thing for supper seven days a week by saying, “Sometimes I like to sit and just stare into space. I don’t require newness just for newness’ sake”—nor, for that matter, does he require joy for joy’s sake. He also has yet to let go of the past. “You broke my heart,” he tells Rebecca about her abrupt marriage to Joe Davitch thirty years earlier. “I trusted you. Then one day you said goodbye and walked out, not a word about why.” His is the voice of a self-pitying divorced man struggling to pin responsibility for his own deep unhappiness somewhere else.
Still, deciding that he is in mourning for his lost marriage, Rebecca makes a project out of him. After several dates—including a disastrous meeting with his leather-clad, eyebrow-pierced daughter—she comes up with a designation for him: “I want you to meet the man in my life,” she tells her daughters, though only one of them understands that she is implying this is someone towards whom she may have romantic inclinations. Though his formal introduction to the family (most of the Davitches have already met him, but regarded him simply as another person dropping by the Open Arms) goes better than most of their other dates, his casual criticism of her family leads her to dump him once again, and to realize that, regardless of how he felt, it was Rebecca herself who was in mourning for a lost marriage. A Thanksgiving dinner attended by most of the family provides the impetus for Rebecca to look back over her life and try to recapture not what she lost when she gave her life to Joe Davitch, but what she gained.
The novel ends with the entire Davitch clan celebrating Poppy’s one hundredth birthday a few weeks after Thanksgiving. Poppy is one of Tyler’s great characters, a centenarian who has his wits and his vitality, though both in somewhat limited quantity, and he takes the opportunity offered by his birthday not only to reflect on the life he lived, but to report on it in a minute-by-minute monologue recounting his day. Meanwhile, the children in the family play a videotaped version of old family movies. Looking at herself in the film, Rebecca realizes how happy she was, and accepts that although she always had to work at being cheerful, her cheer has been an unselfish gift from which both she and the other Davitches have profited.
No description of the plot can do justice to the pure delight of Tyler’s comedy. She loves to catch people about to descend to their worst, so that they can surprise themselves and the reader with their best. Hers is a warm, humane comedy that keeps it scope very narrow, but strikes deep into the heart.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 287 (May, 2001): 112.
Booklist 97 (March 1, 2001): 1189.
The New Yorker 77 (May 14, 2001): 107.
Publishers Weekly 248 (May 14, 2001): 24.
The Spectator 286 (June 2, 2001): 40.
The Times Literary Supplement, June 15, 2001, p. 24.
US Weekly, May 21, 2001, p. 65.
Women’s Review of Books 19 (July, 2001): 30.