Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant begins with Pearl Cody Tull’s deathbed reflections and ends with her funeral. Like Searching for Caleb, this novel revolves around an unconventional family in which the mother is a central figure. While the source of Justine’s energy is that of her husband, whom she imitates and even exceeds, the source of Pearl’s is her misery at having been unaccountably deserted by the husband whom she dearly loved. Pearl’s excesses come not from joy in freedom but from anger because she is imprisoned in a life she did not choose.
At thirty, Pearl had been facing spinsterhood. Then she met a loud, brash salesman six years her junior who admired her ladylike behavior and had the power to persuade her that anything in the world was possible. Beck Tull and Pearl hastened into marriage. Eventually, they had three children. When the oldest was entering his teens, Beck disappeared, and it was then that Pearl became almost demented. Somehow she could never tell the children that Beck was never coming back. Trapped in her lie, overburdened by responsibility, and often financially desperate, she would suddenly be overcome by rage, striking out at the very children she had so desired.
Because of their mother’s peculiarities, the Tull children are isolated from the community; however, unlike the eccentric Pecks in Searching for Caleb, they cannot take delight in their own independence. Unfortunately, because no one ever explains to them either their father’s absence or their mother’s furies, they come to see life as dangerous and irrational, and as they grow to adulthood, in different ways they all try to find some kind of security.
The oldest child, Cody Tull, is particularly burdened. Convinced that one of his pranks must have caused his father to leave, Cody has a profound need to control his life so that no such event will ever occur again. His choice of profession is typical of Tyler, who even in tragic stories can amuse her readers with her imaginative but unfaltering logic: Cody becomes an efficiency expert. Unfortunately, he cannot organize his own emotions as well as he can structure a factory. Jealous of his brother’s success with his girlfriends, Cody marries a highly unsuitable woman simply because she is his brother’s fiancée.
Cody’s sister Jenny, too, seeks the rationality which her childhood denied her. The highly intelligent and completely organized Harley Baines seems perfect for her. After she marries Harley, Jenny discovers that his most well-developed faculty is the critical one, and she finds herself constantly under fire. Clearly, she had looked for intellect in a partner when she should have emphasized commitment. Through her pediatric practice, she meets a desperate widower with children of his own, and the household they set up together, though as hectic and unpredictable as that of her childhood, is extremely happy because it is founded on love, not on anger.
It is Ezra Tull, however, the middle child and his mother’s favorite, whose dreams of a harmonious family life are reflected in the book title. After Ezra becomes the owner of a restaurant where he has long been working, he changes its image and its name. “The Homesick Restaurant” is intended to cater to everyone who, like Ezra, associates food with the security of a loving family. Ironically, every time Ezra brings the family together for a fine meal, they quarrel and someone walks out. The only meal that is ever completed is the feast after Pearl’s funeral, when the missing Beck Tull, who had stormed out, consents to return and finish his meal with the family he had deserted.
The excuse Beck gives for leaving his family, which caused so much pain to four people, is that Pearl could see his faults and he could not bear it. Although Tyler will never glorify conformity for its own sake, in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant she makes it clear that unloving, irresponsible egotism such as Beck’s cannot be justified,...
(The entire section is 2,621 words.)