One of Anne Tyler’s most appreciative reviewers, John Updike, writes that Tyler seems to “accept the belief, extinct save in the South, that families are absolutely, intrinsically interesting.” Updike is right about Tyler’s acceptance, if mistaken about the belief’s near extinction. Her great subject is not sexuality but maternity, not romantic love but ties between parents and children. Far from viewing the family as trivial, she has long been fascinated by the complex feelings of those who are bound to one another by the most profound and intimate physical obligations. Mothers must feed their offspring’s hunger for affection and security; siblings must compete; children must inevitably be hurt by the estrangement of their parents from each other. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler illuminates all of these mundane domestic truths, bringing to bear on them her power to make the ordinary seem astonishing, the astonishing seem ordinary.
Her story begins with a mother, Pearl Tull, and takes up, one by one, the lives of Pearl’s three children, and of their children after them. At the novel’s beginning, Pearl is ill; in its last chapter, her family has gathered for a meal after her funeral. Through Pearl’s recollections during her final illness, the reader learns that at thirty she married Beck Tull, a traveling salesman with a social background inferior to her own. Pearl knew from the beginning that Beck was unreliable, a “slangy, loud-voiced salesman peering at his reflection with too much interest when he tied his tie in the mornings, combing his pompadour tall and damp and frilly and then replacing the comb in a shirt pocket full of pencils, pens, ruler, appointment book, and tire gauge, all bearing catchy printed slogans for various firms.” Sure enough, one day, Beck, like so many of Tyler’s characters, embarks on a “thirty-five-year business trip,” leaving Pearl, angry and frightened, to support their three young children.
The oldest child, Cody, is a troublemaker. Pearl does not seem to realize that Cody secretly wonders whether it was something he did that made his father leave, nor does she perceive that Cody is conscious of her favoritism toward his younger brother Ezra. These two worries motivate behavior in Cody that Pearl considers difficult and mean; still, handsome, dark-haired Cody is a hero as well as a villain. His success in business, like his obsession with winning at Monopoly, arises from a need for the absent Beck’s approval. Similarly, the tricks he plays on Ezra—culminating in the theft of Ezra’s finacée—are motivated by Cody’s knowledge that Ezra is Pearl’s favorite.
Ezra, his hair seeming “formed of layers of silk in various shades of yellow and beige,” is indeed a lovable child, “so sweet and clumsy it could break your heart.” His affectionate nature allows him to accomplish effortlessly what Cody cannot achieve by force. Innocent and dreamy, Ezra moves placidly through Tyler’s story, playing his recorder and drawing others to him. He likes people to get along with one another, and as he grows into adulthood, he soothes and supports those he cares about by preparing special food for them: hot milk with honey and cinnamon, a “consoling” pot roast, a gizzard soup that can alter the “whole perception of the day.” After a brief and unsuccessful stint in the Army, he returns to Baltimore to work in and eventually to own the Homesick Restaurant, where total strangers can “’come just like to a family dinner . . . and everything will be solid and wholesome, really homelike.’” Ezra so willingly accepts the events that occur in his life that he does not oppose even the loss of Ruth, the country cook with whom he falls in love, to the fiercely competitive Cody.
Jenny, the youngest of Pearl’s three children, is an orderly and conscientious child, a hard-working perfectionist who earns straight A’s and who, as she enters adolescence, begins a perpetual series of odd diets. Thrice married, she becomes a pediatrician and stepmother to a family of six. Jenny treats all these children generously, but she remains emotionally distant. When not surrounded by children, she experiences “an echoing, weightless feeling, as if she lacked ballast. . . .” Jenny’s preoccupation with thinness provides a thematic counterweight to Ezra’s inclination to nurture others. Her characteristic gesture of covering her mouth with her hand is related to the numb lips she associates with a nightmare about Pearl: “her mother laughed a witch’s shrieking laugh; dragged Jenny out of hiding as the Nazis trampled up the stairs; accused her of sins and crimes that had never crossed Jenny’s mind. Her mother told her, in an informative and considerate tone of voice, that she was raising Jenny to eat her.”
Jenny’s dream reveals that she and her brothers are well aware of their mother’s deep ambivalence toward them. Although Pearl is a strong-willed and efficient woman, she is terrified by the awesome responsibility of supporting her children by herself. In their neediness, they often seem to her like “parasites,” yet she cares for them dutifully, worrying over them through illnesses and enjoying their physicality as babies, their smell and shape, their weight against her shoulder. Like most parents, Pearl does the best she can. Unable to alter either her personality or her circumstances, she sometimes attributes the family’s conflicts to fate: “She feels that everything has been assigned, has been preordained; everyone must play his role.” At other times, she takes the responsibility upon herself: “Pearl believes . . . that her family has failed. . . . There is no one to accept the blame for this but Pearl herself, who raised these children single-handed and did make mistakes. . . .” Her mistakes are serious ones—a fierce protectiveness that keeps her children from having friends, inexplicable and violent rages, physical abuse. Pearl’s inept...
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