The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler review

by Marion McLeod / 26 May, 2012
A charming but slight ghost story from Anne Tyler.
It’s been a while since the flurry of movies – Ghost, Truly, Madly, Deeply – that had dearly departeds return to comfort their lovers. The Beginner’s Goodbye is not the first print version but it’s certainly a first for Anne Tyler, who has always stuck firmly to detailed realism in suburban Baltimore. Tyler’s is a very down-to-earth ghost, mind you, with nothing of the Alan Rickman mischief or Patrick Swayze soft focus. Dorothy dies when an oak tree falls on the sunporch of the house she shares with husband Aaron Woolcott. He’s the narrator, his opening sentence: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

Other people’s reactions bother Aaron. Childhood illness has left him slightly disabled: he uses a cane, and he loathes sympathy or caring in any form. After his bereavement, casseroles, cookies and kindness rain down upon him, and he is not grateful. He plods on at his work as an editor in the family publishing fi rm. It survives on vanity productions and a series of beginner’s guides: The Beginner’s Book of Kitchen Remodeling, The Beginner’s Menu Plan, The Beginner’s Book of Dog Training. Little by little, Aaron begins to look back on his relationship with Dorothy. Little by little, we see the cracks in the marriage. Tyler is good on grief but this beginner’s guide, it must be said, lacks the richness, the wryness, the comic and the tragic notes of her best work. It has charming moments but it’s a slight novel and its sudden ending is perfunctory and unconvincing.

Tyler doesn’t usually opt for a first person viewpoint. Granted, it has obvious advantages for this scenario. But Aaron, despite his sufferings, does not make an appealing hero or a perceptive narrator. Macon Leary, of The Accidental Tourist, is not unlike Aaron. But Macon’s story is told in the third person, whereas Aaron’s limited take on life narrows the range of his story. It’s hard to remember he’s just 36 and apparently very good-looking: he seems at least 50, going on 70. Tyler herself is now 70. When she began publishing, she gave two interviews. Then she was silent for 40 years. But in the past couple of months, she has talked to several journalists. It seems she planned to make The Beginner’s Goodbye her last novel, it being a good title to go out on. But fortunately she has already begun her 20th, a sprawling family saga. “If I write it backwards through the generations, then it could end whenever I died.”

THE BEGINNER’S GOODBYE, by Anne Tyler (Jonathan Cape, $34.99).

Marion McLeod is a Wellington reviewer.
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