The Beginner's Goodbye
Chatto & Windus, 208pp, £14.99
Perhaps the most interesting question to ask about Anne Tyler is why she is admired by so many men, when she writes about everyday life. Many women novelists focus on such quotidian matters as marriage, families, adoption and the quest for love; few are even reviewed, let alone praised by writers such as John Updike, Jonathan Franzen and Nick Hornby. Her novels, mostly set in Baltimore, are the polar opposite of the violent, macho world of The Wire, also set in Maryland's biggest city. And unlike Alison Lurie or Jane Smiley, Tyler never allows her comic sense to stiffen into satire. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, she has become the homecoming queen of American literature - attractive, nice but perhaps a little bit too corn-fed to be genuinely challenging.
The Beginner's Goodbye is, at 208 pages, her shortest novel to date. Aaron, the tall, gangling hero, is being haunted by his wife. Dorothy was crushed when an oak fell on their house. Her reappearance, apparently witnessed but unremarked upon by Aaron's friends and neighbours, may be "real" or it may be a projection of our narrator's deep grief and bereavement.
A quintessentially Tyler-esque protagonist, Aaron keeps his feelings buttoned-up, probably due to an over-attentive mother and his
sister, Nandina. We learn, almost immediately, that he is disabled; only later do women tell him (and us) that he's also attractive. As the
editor of books produced by a vanity press, as well as short "beginner's guides" to various aspects of life, he makes a respectable, if unoriginal, living.
Much of the novel is concerned with memories. Through Aaron, Tyler describes how he met his wife and instantly fell in love. Dorothy's stubborn practicality, her comforting plainness, her clinician's detachment are all well-drawn, though the reader may be excused for finding her less interesting than the narrator. It's Aaron with his loneliness and dry humour who engages. Like other Tyler heroes, he is the only one who "sees" his unappealing beloved as she truly is, putting up with her difficult nature while enduring reprimands for his own. (One suspects this repeated theme is a major reason why Tyler's work appeals so strongly to men.) He belongs to the Humphrey Bogart school of plain, manly men who deserve to find happiness in love simply because they have put up with so much.
For the marriage with Dorothy was, as readers realise long before Aaron does, not happy. She "seemed entire in herself", wears her doctor's white coat when they go out on their first date and is preoccupied by her work. They have no children. Even so, when Aaron finally remembers "that familiar, weary helpless feeling, the feeling that we were confined in some kind of rodent cage, wrestling together doggedly, neither one of us ever winning", it's a shock. He loved her, but did she love him?
In the meantime, the smashed home has been (symbolically) rebuilt and improved by Gil, a builder whose unexpected romance with Aaron's gawky, bossy sister forms a charming counterpoint to the story. Aaron returns to the house, hoping to see Dorothy's ghost again - only Dorothy appears where least expected. This could have been played for laughs, as in Blithe Spirit, but isn't.
The question to ask is whether The Beginner's Goodbye is art, or whether it is simply tasteful, emotionally intelligent, well-written, Waspy entertainment of a kind that Elinor Lipman has also recently made popular. Aaron, unlike a woman in a similar situation, finds a new love and a more positive future - the default setting for Tyler's novels being that of a modicum of happiness.
But there are few of the striking, epigrammatic insights into the human condition such as recur in her best-known novel, The Accidental Tourist (which bears some resemblance to this book, with its themes of love, loss, luck and loneliness). A richer, more humane treatment of many of the same questions is given in her ninth novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (this is her 19th), which benefits from a larger cast and a broader chronological sweep.
Yet the fundamental preoccupations of this novel, and the way in which Aaron's memories of his lost marriage take us back and forth between past and present, are both serious and satisfying. The possible reason for his experience of being haunted is discussed with Aaron's friend Luke, with an insight about what we notice of others when they're living that pulls the themes of the novel into shape.
The Beginner's Goodbye is an entirely different kind of ghost story to what Susan Hill wrote in The Woman in Black. It is entirely appropriate that, when our hero finally realises that love has been sitting under his nose all the time, he does so via a home-baked version of the famous Maryland cookie - with soy grits "for supplemental protein".
Amanda Craig's most recent novel is "Hearts and Minds" (Abacus, £8.99)