Back When We Were Grownups (Tyler)

Book Reviews
In her deeply moving and perfectly syncopated new novel, Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler presents a stunning portrait of fifty-three-year-old Rebecca Davitch, a "wide and soft and dimpled" woman whose style of dress edges "dangerously close to Bag Lady," whose hair naturally assumes a "pup tent" shape and whose compulsive goodness has become the source, especially of late, of much eloquent soul-searching. Increasingly, Rebecca has been thinking about the past—thinking about how, at twenty, she was already "engaged to be engaged," and remembering her years as a college student with dreams of her own doctorate degree. All this before being swept away (or was it that she allowed herself to be swept away?) by a man several years her senior. Only six years into their marriage, her husband was dead, leaving Rebecca with his three daughters, their own infant and a crumbling hospitality establishment, The Open Arms, which only she seems equipped to keep on its ramshackle feet. Images of Rebecca's younger self come flitting back. She had been dignified, she decides. She had been serene. She wasn't the sort to be organizing picnics and parties, to be lassoed with a nickname, to be belting out improvised toasts on all occasions, but that is the woman she had become. "Once upon a time," the story begins, "there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person."

The book follows the marvelously drawn and complex Rebecca as she retraces and reimagines her past, and as she then turns back to the present. "Wasn't it strange," Rebecca wonders at one point, "how certain moments, now and then—certain turning points in a life—contained the curled and waiting seeds of everything that would follow?" What if she'd taken other paths at the forks in her road? What if she had married the man she had been engaged to be engaged to? What if she had been less relentlessly jolly? Back When We Were Grownups is Tyler's fifteenth novel, and she is still not scrimping on wackiness and wit, on sentences of shocking originality, on wisdom. She is still layering on the quirkiness so that she can meticulously peel it back. There's not a flat line in this book, not a single simple character, not a moment that isn't tapped for all its glorious possibilities. There is a party on almost every page, and there is also the party's aftermath. This is storytelling at its best and most breathtaking. Tyler, an acknowledged master of the form, is living up to her well-earned reputation.
Beth Kephart - Book Magazine

On the first page of Tyler's stunning new novel, Rebecca Davitch, the heroine (and heroine is exactly the right word) realizes that she has become the "wrong person." No longer the "serene and dignified young woman" she was at 20, at 53 Rebecca finds she has become family caretaker and cheerleader, a woman with a "style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady." So she tries to do something about it. In the midst of her busy life as mother, grandmother and proprietor of the family business, the Open Arms (she hosts parties in the family's old Baltimore row house), Rebecca attempts to pick up the life she was leading before she married, back when she felt grownup. She visits her hometown in Virginia, locates the boyfriend she jilted and renews her intellectual interests. But as Rebecca ponders the life-that-might-have-been, the reader learns about the life-that-was. At 20, she left college and abandoned her high school sweetheart to marry a man who already had a large family to support. A year later, she had a baby of her own; five years later, her husband died in an auto accident, and she was left to raise four daughters, tend to her aging uncle-in-law and support them all. And a difficult lot they are, seldom crediting Rebecca for holding her rangy family together. Yet like all of Tyler's characters, they are charming in their dysfunction. And much as one feels for Rebecca, much as one wants her to find love, it's difficult to imagine her leaving or upsetting the family order. Tyler (The Accidental Tourist; Breathing Lessons) has a gift for creating endearing characters, but readers should find Rebecca particularly appealing, for despite the blows she takes, she bravely keeps on trying. Tyler also has a gift genius is more like it for unfurling intricate stories effortlessly, as if by whimsy or accident. The ease of her storytelling here is breathtaking, but almost unnoticeable because, rather like Rebecca, Tyler never calls attention to what she does. Late in the novel, Rebecca observes that her younger self had wanted to believe "that there were grander motivations in history than mere family and friends, mere domestic happenstance." Tyler makes it plain: nothing could be more grand.
Publishers Weekly

The Family Davitch—dazzling and daunting, dismal and dysfunctional—arrives in Tyler's delicious l5th novel. But first meet Rebecca, who, on her way to somewhere less fateful, accidentally wanders into the midst of this Baltimore bedlam and stays for dinner. And beyond, way beyond, and in the process keeps the compulsively discordant Davitches from disintegrating as a family. Not that any of them would ever dream of thanking her for it. At the age of 19, Rebecca marries Joseph Aaron Davitch, 13 years her senior, a union that makes her the instant stepmother of three dark-haired, dark-complected, moody, broody Davitch daughters. In due time she adds to the collection another with the same coloring, disposition, and contentious attitude, as if the genes in her own pool had drowned themselves en masse, cowed by the Davitch invasion. When Joe dies in an automobile accident, Rebecca continues to inherit: an ancient relative by marriage who somehow comes to live with her, plus the Open Arms, a once-elegant, now shambling rowhouse, site of "party-giving for all occasions," the family business. With pluck, resourcefulness, and cleverness she seldom gets credit for, she keeps that, too, from disintegrating. Unhesitatingly, the self-centered Davitches bring their not-inconsiderable problems to her and apply the solutions she suggests, while resenting any attempt she makes, no matter how minor, to edge out from under. At 53, then, in typical Tyler fashion, Rebecca Holmes Davitch suddenly asks herself if she has "turned into the wrong person"—a serious question, and the burden of the novel. To which a clear-eyed, entirely sensible Tyler answer issupplied. Packed with life in all its humdrum complexity—and funny, so funny, the kind that compels reading aloud. A masterful effort from one of our very best.
Kirkus Reviews

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