Beginner's Goodbye (Tyler)

The Beginner's Goodbye
Ann Tyler, 2012
Knopf Doubleday
208 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307957276

Anne Tyler gives us a wise, haunting, and deeply moving new novel in which she explores how a middle-aged man, ripped apart by the death of his wife, is gradually restored by her frequent appearances—in their house, on the roadway, in the market.
Crippled in his right arm and leg, Aaron spent his childhood fending off a sister who wants to manage him. So when he meets Dorothy, a plain, outspoken, self-dependent young woman, she is like a breath of fresh air. Unhesitatingly he marries her, and they have a relatively happy, unremarkable marriage. But when a tree crashes into their house and Dorothy is killed, Aaron feels as though he has been erased forever. Only Dorothy’s unexpected appearances from the dead help him to live in the moment and to find some peace.

Gradually he discovers, as he works in the family’s vanity-publishing business, turning out titles that presume to guide beginners through the trials of life, that maybe for this beginner there is a way of saying goodbye.
A beautiful, subtle exploration of loss and recovery, pierced throughout with Anne Tyler’s humor, wisdom, and always penetrating look at human foibles. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—October 25, 1941
Where—Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Education—B.A., Duke University
Awards—Pulitzer Prize (see below)
Currently—lives in Baltimore, Maryland

Anne Tyler  is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and literary critic. She has published 20 novels, the best known of which are Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1983), The Accidental Tourist (1985), and Breathing Lessons (1988). All three were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the third won it.

She has also won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2012 she was awarded The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. She is recognized for her fully developed characters, her "brilliantly imagined and absolutely accurate detail" (New York Times), and her "rigorous and artful style" and "astute and open language" (also, New York Times). While many of her characters have been described as quirky or eccentric, she has managed to make them seem real through skillfully fleshing out their inner lives in great depth.

Her subject in all her novels has been the American family and marriage: the boredom and exasperating irritants endured by partners, children, siblings, parents; the desire for freedom pulling against the tethers of attachments and conflicted love; the evolution over time of familial love and sense of duty. Tyler celebrates unremarkable Americans and the ordinary details of their everyday lives. Because of her style and subject matter, she has been compared to John Updike, Jane Austen, and Eudora Welty, among others.

The eldest of four children, she was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father, Lloyd Parry Tyler, was an industrial chemist and her mother, Phyllis Mahon Tyler, a social worker. Both her parents were Quakers who were very active with social causes in the Midwest and the South.  Her family lived in a succession of Quaker communities in the South until they settled in 1948 in a Quaker commune in Celo, in the mountains of North Carolina near Burnsville.

The Celo Community settlement was founded by conscientious objectors and members of the liberal Hicksite branch of the Society of Friends, with community labor needs shared by the residents. Tyler lived there from age 7 through 11 and helped her parents and others with caring for livestock and organic farming. While she did not attend formal public school in Celo, lessons were taught in art, carpentry, and cooking in homes and in other subjects in a tiny school house. Her early informal training was supplemented by correspondence school.

Her first memory of her own creative story-telling was of crawling under the bed covers at age 3 and "telling myself stories in order to get to sleep at night." Her first book at age 7 was a collection of drawings and stories about "lucky girls...who got to go west in covered wagons." Her favorite book as a child was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. Tyler acknowledges that this book, which she read many times during this period of limited access to books, had a profound influence on her, showing how the years flowed by, people altered, and nothing could ever stay the same."

This early perception of changes over time is a theme that reappears in many of her novels decades later, just as The Little House itself appears in her novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Tyler also describes reading Little Women 22 times as a child. When the Tyler family left Celo after four years to move to Raleigh, NC, 11-year-old Anne had never attended public school and never used a telephone. This unorthodox upbringing enabled her to view "the normal world with a certain amount of distance and surprise."

Raleigh, North Carolina
It also meant that Tyler felt herself to be an outsider in the public schools she attended in Raleigh, a feeling that has followed her most of her life. She believes that this sense of being an outsider has contributed to her becoming a writer:

I believe that any kind of setting-apart situation will do [to become a writer]. In my case, it was emerging from the commune…and trying to fit into the outside world.

Despite her lack of public schooling prior to age 11, Anne entered school academically well ahead of most of her classmates in Raleigh. With access now to libraries, she discovered Eudora Welty, Gabriel García Márquez, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. Welty remains one of her favorite writers, and she credits Welty with showing her that books could be about the everyday details of life, not just about major events.

During her years at N. B. Broughton High School in Raleigh, she was inspired and encouraged by a remarkable English teacher, Phyllis Peacock. Peacock had previously taught the writer Reynolds Price, under whom Tyler would later study at Duke University. She would also later teach the writer Armistead Maupin. Seven years after high school, Tyler would dedicate her first published novel to "Mrs. Peacock, for everything you’ve done."

Tyler won a full scholarship to Duke University, which her parents urged her to go accept it because they also needed money for the education of her three younger brothers. At Duke, Tyler enrolled in Reynolds Price's first creative writing class, which also included a future poet, Fred Chappell. Price was most impressed with the sixteen-year-old Tyler, describing her as "frighteningly mature for 16," "wide-eyed," and "an outsider." Years later Price would describe Tyler as "one of the best novelists alive in the world,… who was almost as good a writer at 16 as she is now."

While an undergraduate, Tyler published her short story "Laura" in the Duke literary journal Archive, for which she won the newly created Anne Flexner award for creative writing. She wrote many short stories, one of which impressed Reynolds Price so that he later stated that it was the "most finished, most accomplished short story I have ever received from an undergraduate in my thirty years of teaching." "The Saints in Caesar’s Household" was published in Archive also and won her a second Anne Flexner award. This short story led to her meeting Diarmuid Russell, to whom Price had sent it with kudos. Russell, who was an agent for both Reynolds Price and for Tyler’s "crowning influence" Eudora Welty, later became Tyler’s agent.

Tyler majored in Russian Literature at Duke—not English—and graduated in 1961, at age 19, having been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. With her Russian Literature background she received a fellowship to graduate school in Slavic Studies at Columbia University although she left after a year without her master's degree. She returned to Duke where she got a job in the library as a Russian bibliographer. It was there that she met Taghi Modarressi, a resident in child psychiatry in Duke Medical School and a writer himself, and they were married a year later (1963).

Early writing
While working at the Duke library—before and after marrying Modarressi—Tyler continued to write short stories, which appeared in The New Yoker, Saturday Evening Post, and Harpers. She also started work on her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, eventually published 1964, followed by The Tin Can Tree in 1965. Years later she disowned both of these novels, as well as many of the short stories she wrote during this period, going so far as to say she "would like to burn them." She feels that most of this early work suffers from the lack of thorough character development and her failure to rework material repeatedly.

After the birth of two children (1965 and 1967), followed by a move from Montreal, Canada, to Baltimore in the U.S., Tyler had little time or energy for writing. She published nothing from 1965 to 1970. By 1970, however, she began writing again and published three more novels by 1974—A Slipping-Down Life, The Clock Winder, and Celestial Navigation. In her own opinion, her writing improved considerably during this period; with her children entering school, she was able to devote more time—and focus more intensely—than at any time since her undergraduate days.

National recognition
With Celestial Navigation, Tyler began to get wider recognition. Morgan's Passing (1980) won her the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction and was nominated for both the American Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

With her next novel (her ninth), Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler truly arrived as a recognized artist in the literary world. (She considers Homesick her best work.) Her tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1985. It was also made into a 1988 movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. The popularity of this well-received film further increased the growing public awareness of her work. Her 11th novel, Breathing Lessons, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989 and was Time magazine’s "Book of the Year." It was adapted into a 1994 TV movie, as eventually were four other of her novels.

Since her Pulitzer Prize with Breathing Lessons, Tyler has written 9 more novels, all of favorably reviewed, many Book of the Month Club Main Selections and New York Times Bestsellers.

In Tyler’s own words, the characters are the driving forces behind the stories and the starting point for her writing:

I do make a point of writing down every imaginable facet of my characters before I begin a book, trying to get to know them so I can figure out how they’ll react in any situation…..My reason for writing now is to live lives other than my own, and I do that by burrowing deeper and deeper….till I reach the center of those lives.

The magic of her novels starts with her ability to create those characters in the reader’s mind through the use of remarkably realistic details. The late Canadian author Carol Shields, writing about Tyler's characters, observes:

Tyler has always put her characters to work. Their often humble or eccentric occupations, carefully observed and threaded with humor, are tightly sewn to the other parts of their lives, offering them the mixed benefit of tedium and consolation, as well as a lighted stage for the unfolding of their dramatic selves. She also allows her men and women an opportunity for redemption.

Tyler has clearly spelled out the importance of her characters to her stories: "As far as I’m concerned, character is everything. I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too."

Stylistically, Tyler's writing is difficult to categorize or label. Novelist Cathleen Schine describes how her "style without a style" manages to pull the reader into the story:

So rigorous and artful is the style without a style, so measured and delicate is each observation, so complex is the structure and so astute and open the language, that the reader can relax, feel secure in the narrative and experience the work as something real and natural.

The San Francisco Chronicle made a similar point: "One does not so much read a Tyler novel as visit it.

While Tyler herself does not like to think of her novels in terms of themes, numerous reviewers and scholars have noted the importance of family and marriage relationships to her characters and stories. Reviewing Noah's Compass, New York Times' Mitchiko Kakutani noted that

The central concern of most of this author’s characters has always been their need to define themselves in terms of family—the degree to which they see themselves as creatures shaped by genetics, childhood memories and parental and spousal expectations, and the degree to which they are driven to embrace independent identities of their own.

Tyler is not without her critics. The most common criticism is that her works are "sentimental," "sweet," and "charming and cosy." Even Kakutani has also occasionally bemoaned a "cloying cuteness," noting that "her novels—with their eccentric heroes, their homespun details, their improbable, often heartwarming plots—have often flirted with cuteness." In her own defense, Tyler has said, 

For one thing I think it is sort of true. I would say piss and vinegar for [Philip] Roth and for me milk and cookies. I can’t deny it…. [However] there’s more edge under some of my soft language than people realize.

Also, because almost all of Tyler’s work covers the same territory—family and marriage relationships—and are located in the same setting, she has come under criticism for being repetitive and formulaic.

Tyler’s advice to beginning writers:

They should run out and buy the works of Erving Goffman, the sociologist who studied the meaning of gesture in personal interactions. I have cause to think about Erving Goffman nearly every day of my life, every time I see people do something unconscious that reveals more than they’ll ever know about their interiors. Aren’t human beings intriguing? I could go on writing about them forever."

(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/10/2015.)

Book Reviews
In Tyler’s elegant 19th novel, Aaron is an editor at a vanity press with a crippled right arm and leg who thinks of himself as “unluckier but no unhappier” than anyone else. He meets Dorothy, a brisk, no nonsense doctor, while editing a medical tome, and they fall in love, marry, and muddle along until Dorothy dies in an accident that nearly destroys their home. Aaron moves in with his overprotective sister and begins seeing Dorothy’s ghost, spectral appearances that make him realize just how many fissures there were in their marriage. Tyler’s gentle style focuses on the details of daily life, and how the little things, both beautiful and ugly, contribute to the bigger picture. Tyler (Breathing Lessons, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988) portrays complex, difficult, loving individuals struggling to co-exist and find happiness together. This is no gothic ghost story nor chronicle of a man unraveling in his grief, but rather an uplifting tale of love and forgiveness. By the end of this wonderful book, you’ve lived the lives and loves of these characters in the best possible way.
Publishers Weekly

Although crippled in his right arm and leg, Aaron has spent much of his life fending off his family's attempts to protect him from the world. A successful editor of a vanity press in Baltimore that publishes a series of beginner's guides to various subjects, Aaron one day finds himself falling in love with Dr. Dorothy Rosales, whom he has approached about helping to write The Beginner's Cancer. They soon end up married, but catastrophe strikes when a tree falls on their house and kills Dorothy. Unable to live in his house any longer because of memories and roof damage, Aaron goes to live with his sister. He moves through loss, despair, helplessness, and emotional paralysis until one day Dorothy appears to him in the street. Struggling with the meaning of her appearances, Aaron eventually comes to accept them as her way of both saying good-bye and helping him get over her death. Verdict: As always, Pulitzer Prize winner Tyler brilliantly explores a stunning range of human emotion, poignantly considering the challenges of death while creating lovable characters whose foibles capture our hearts. Essential reading. —Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Evanston, IL
Library Journal

Though the plot finds a man in early middle age coming to terms with the death of his wife, the tone of this whimsical fable is so light that it practically floats off the page. Some might consider the latest from Tyler (Noah's Compass, 2010, etc.) typically wise and charming, while others will dismiss it as cloying. She employs a first-person narrator, a 36-year-old man named Aaron, who....receives visits from his dead wife, whom no one else can see, and whom he admits might well be a projection or an apparition. If he is an unreliable narrator, he is also a flawed one, often sounding more like a much older woman than like a man his age (very few of whom use terms like "busy-busy"). Mourning is both a rite of passage and a process of discovery for Aaron, who early worries that, "I can't do this…I don't know how. They don't offer any courses in this; I haven't had any practice," but who is ultimately not a tragic but comic figure, one who will (more or less) live happily ever after. An uncharacteristically slight work by a major novelist.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Aaron is handicapped on his right side as a result of a childhood illness. Why do you think the author chose to give her main character such a handicap? Is it significant—a symbol or metaphor—or entirely coincidental?

2. Does the way that Aaron’s mother and sister treated him when he was growing up impact his character as an adult? Or explain why he might have married Dorothy?

3. In Aaron’s recollections of initially meeting Dorothy and falling in love with her, he portrays himself as having been immediately besotted, though Dorothy herself seems less than scintillating. Is Aaron aware of this discrepancy?

4. After Dorothy’s death, does Aaron fully grieve for her, or is he reluctant to accept what has happened?

5. Why does Dorothy reappear so many months after her death?

6. Aaron states early in the book (pages 11–12) that he is an atheist. Does this (lack of) belief shed any light on Dorothy’s appearances?

7. How does Dorothy act when she reappears? Why? Does her behavior indicate something about her character? About Aaron’s?

8. Beginning on page 175, Aaron reveals that his marriage to Dorothy was not, after all, ideal. Does this come as a surprise? Do you think this has something to do with Dorothy’s reappearances?

9. Toward the end of the book (pages 194–5), Aaron reflects on Gil’s thoughts about his father’s reappearances (“I know Gil felt it was his father’s unfinished business that brought him, but what’s occurred to me lately is, couldn’t it have been Gil’s unfinished business?”). Do Aaron’s reflections suggest why Dorothy has reappeared?

10. If so, what should the reader make of Aaron’s almost defensive remarks on the following page (“Do you imagine it hasn’t occurred to me that I might have just made Dorothy’s visits up?”)? What should we think of Nate’s comments on the page after that (“I think if you knew them well might be able to imagine what they would tell you even now”)? Do these comments indicate how Aaron has come to view Dorothy’s appearances?

11. What are the possible ways to interpret the final paragraph of the book? Are the apparitions of Dorothy real, after all? Is Aaron deluded? Does the final paragraph suggest a “moral” to the story? Was a moral hinted at earlier?

12. What is the significance of the book’s title?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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