Digging to America
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler has had a long and impressive career as a writer whose subtle and nuanced renderings of quirky but likeable characters and their attempts to find their place in their family and community have earned her literary prestige. Indeed, Tyler’s focus on family structure and dynamics began in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964), a story about a young man’s quest to find out the truth about his father, and has continued in most of her other novels, including Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) and The Amateur Marriage (2004). Though Tyler’s juxtaposition of two families to provoke comparison and contrast is not unique in her oeuvre, Digging to America, her seventeenth novel, does not simply focus on her typical white, suburban, Baltimore community. Rather, Tyler contrasts her customary family with one of Iranian origin.
Though Tyler married Taghi Modarressi, an Iranian-born child psychiatrist in 1963, and the two remained married until his death in 1997, she has never substantially presented Iranian culture in any of her novels. With the exception of an early short story and a set of one-dimensional side characters in her 1991 novel Saint Maybe, Tyler has very seldom included characters with differing ethnic backgrounds in her work. Digging to America marks a substantial departure for her, with its thematic exploration of foreignness and its effect on those of other ethnic backgrounds living in America.
The novel opens as two groupsthe Donaldsons, a typical white, middle-class Baltimore suburban family composed of Bitsy and Brad Donaldson and their extended relatives, and the Yazdans, Ziba and Sami, a second-generation Iranian American couple and Sami’s mother, Maryammeet at the airport when each group picks up their respective adopted daughters from Korea. After this chance meeting, the families decide to maintain contact in order to provide a sense of cultural heritage for their daughters. Bitsy imagines the two girls growing up together, having sleepovers, and staying in touch with their Korean background.
The two families, however, could not be more different. The Donaldsons arrive with balloons, extended families, video cameras, and a back-slapping demeanor. They seem to fill up the airport. The Yazdans, by contrast, are hardly noticed: “Three people no one had noticed before approached in single file: a youngish couple, foreign-looking, olive-skinned and attractive, followed by a slim older woman with a chignon of sleek black hair knotted low on the nape of her neck.” In this opening sequence, Tyler sets up a dichotomy often found in her fiction. Frequently, a loud, often large, boisterous family whose members interact well with others is contrasted with an insular, self-contained family whose members prefer to limit interaction, maintaining an aloofness from others.
One can see this pairing in The Accidental Tourist (1985), in which Macon Leary and his siblings are so isolated from others they cannot maintain marriages or friendships, thus becoming reliant on a more engaged person from a more demonstrative family to free them from their insularity. Tyler takes an almost sociological interest in examining different family types to determine which variation is most suitable, and the pairing of the Donaldsons and the Yazdans in Digging to America suggests a return to this continuing question in her work.
The novel is filtered through the limited omniscient points of view of several of the main characters, including Sami Yazdan, Ziba Yazdan, Bitsy Donaldson, and even Jin-Ho Donaldson, the Donaldsons’ adopted daughter. Though one might expect the novel to focus on the two daughters and how they adapt within their adoptive families, the children become merely the reason the families maintain their connection. Partially because Maryam Yazdan’s sections of the novel outnumber those of other characters, and partially because her particular position in the novel is at the nexus of Tyler’s preoccupations, the main story line involves her and her developing relationship with Bitsy Donaldson’s widowed father, Dave.
Maryam is typical of Anne Tyler’s other insular characters, such as Daniel Peck in Searching for Caleb (1976) or Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist. She feels comfortable only with her own family or few close friends, often remaining an outsider in most other social situations. A widow who arrived in the United States...
(The entire section is 1861 words.)