Back When We Were Grownups (Tyler)

Back When We Were Grownups 
Anne Tyler, 2001
Random House
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345477248

An irresistible new novel from Anne Tyler.

At 53, Rebecca Davitch—mistress of The Open Arms, a crumbling 19th-century row house in Baltimore where giving parties is the family business—suddenly asks herself whether she has turned into the wrong person. Is she really this natural-born celebrator; joyous and out-giving?

Certainly that's how Joe Davitch saw her 30-some years ago. And that's why this large-spirited older man, a divorce with three little girls, swept her into his orbit. Before she knew it, she was embracing his extended family (plus a child of their own) and hosting endless parties in the ornate, high-ceilinged rooms where people paid to celebrate their family occasions in style.

But can Beck (as she is known to the Davitch clan) really recover the person she has left behind? A question that touches us all—and one that Anne Tyler explores with characteristic humor and wisdom in a novel one wishes would never end. (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 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

Discussion Questions
1. It is upon Peter's second disappearance during the picnic that Rebecca first thinks: "How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who's not really me?" (p. 20, lines 33-34). Why does Rebecca's "identity crisis" begin at this particular moment in her life?

2. Did Rebecca "choose" her life, or is her life just an example of Poppy's observation: "Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you've got"? (p. 252, lines 1-2). Do people choose their identities, or do they just "end up" the way they are?

3. Rebecca asks her client: "Mrs. Border, have you ever stopped to consider what a marvelous purpose a party serves?" (p. 38, lines 17-18). How does Rebecca answer her own question? Would she answer it differently at the end of the novel?

4. What is the significance of Rebecca's "Freudian slip"—if it can be called that—when she tells Zeb that she is a "superficial" woman, when she really means "superfluous"? Is Rebecca either "superfluous" or "superficial"? Is superfluous a word one could use to describe any character in the book?

5. "[Zeb] had a theory that Min Foo's many marriages were her way of trying on other lives" (p. 29, lines 34-35). Is this the same as what Rebecca is trying to do? Is this a universal fantasy that Rebecca is living out? What might be Tyler's opinion of one trying to "go back to take the other fork in the road" or "trying on different lives"? What other examples can you find in Back When We Were Grownups that provide different ways to think about or define the concept of identity?

6. The opening words of the novel, "Once upon a time . . . , " recall the motif used in fables or fairy tales. In what ways does Back When We Were Grownups resemble a fairy tale or contain elements of the fairy tale or fable? Does Back When We Were Grownups have a moral?

7. Rebecca realizes the irony of the fact that the more she does for her family, the less she is appreciated. "It had occurred to her, often, that the way to win your family's worshipful devotion was to abandon them" (p. 87, lines 17-18). The reader learns a lot about how "Beck" feels about her family—but how does her family feel about her? Does it matter to Rebecca whether her family appreciates her or not? What does the book suggest about how family members treat one another generally in society?

8. How is marriage portrayed in Back When We Were Grownups? Are there marriages of convenience, or are there examples of marriage where both parties to the marriage are equally "useful" to each other, as Rebecca advises NoNo on her marriage to Barry (p. 246, lines 31-32)? Is Rebecca's advice to NoNo convincing to the reader? To Rebecca herself? Why do marriages fail: Joe and Tina's, Will and Laura's, and Min Foo's first two marriages?

9. How would you compare the different types of love explored in the book? With respect to Poppy, Rebecca observes: "Apparently you grow to love whom you're handed" (p. 157, lines 1-2). Is this applicable to the love Rebecca has for any of the other people in her life? In the case of her sons-in-law, Rebecca had promised that she would treat them differently than her mother treated Joe, and "she had kept her promise so faithfully that now she couldn't say for certain whether she truly loved her sons-in-law or merely thought she did" (p. 144, lines 23-25). Is there a practical difference for Rebecca? How do the other characters love Rebecca?

10. What is the significance of Tyler's ending the tale with Poppy's hundredth birthday party? What is really being celebrated?

11. Is the ending of Back When We Were Grownups anticlimactic or satisfying? Is the reader mad at or frustrated with Rebecca, or proud of her? At what point does the reader come to "recognize" the "real" Rebecca?

12. Can Rebecca be described as a heroine? A martyr? Is she an ordinary or extraordinary woman? When she realizes that she has brought the Davitches her "joyousness . . . [which] she had struggled to acquire . . . Timidly, she experimented with a sneaking sense of achievement. Pride, even" (p. 246, lines 31-36, to p. 247, lines 1-4). Is this her greatest achievement? What are Rebecca's failures?

13. Is there significance to Rebecca's dream about the boy on the train (p. 21, lines 1-17)? Why does she realize that Peter was the boy on the train at the moment that she does (p. 273, lines 32-33)? Is Peter her chance at creating a new life or identity? Is Rebecca's dream a metaphor for her "identity crisis, " and, if so, what does it tell us about how seriously to take her "identity crisis"?

14. What does "The Open Arms" symbolize? Is the name of Rebecca's house intended to be ironic? How might the dynamic of the Davitch family be different if their family business were something other than running a party facility out of their home?

15. How does Tyler develop the characters in her novel? Compare how certain characters, such as Poppy and Rebecca's mother, speak a lot, and others, such as Peter, say very little. How much do we learn about some of the lesser characters by the few words they say in the novel? How is Rebecca's character developed differently than the other characters?

16. What is the meaning of the title (p. 188, lines 11-17)? What does it mean to be "grownup, " and can Rebecca or any of the other characters be described as "grownups"?

17. Does the concept of "family" defy definition in Back When We Were Grownups? Might the reader wonder how Rebecca came to be so accepting of all of the assorted people she welcomes easily into her family? Is she rebelling against her own mother's intolerance, or simply filling the void of her lonely childhood?

18. For Rebecca, "the most memorable of the five senses . . . was the sense of touch" (p. 34, lines 28-29). The sense of taste also figures prominently in the book, invoked by the descriptions of the food served to Rebecca (p. 64, lines 8-9; p. 131; and p. 205) and Biddy's gourmet foods. What does Tyler achieve stylistically by invoking these senses, or any of the other three senses?

19. How would you characterize the conversations Rebecca has with her grandchildren? What do they reveal about Rebecca? For example: Rebecca tells Merrie about her dream (p. 49, lines 13-14), and she discusses Poppy's birthday party with Peter (p. 117, lines 20-35).

20. What is the significance of the descriptions of the lives and families of the workmen who frequent The Open Arms? Are they merely humorous interludes, or is their placement in the novel significant to Rebecca's progress in her search for her identity?

21. Is Tyler's choice of the motives of Robert E. Lee as the topic of Rebecca's college research project intended to be humorous? Ironic? Is Rebecca's realization about Lee's motives analogous to her own self-recognition, and, if it does invite such comparison, what does that tell the reader about how to view Rebecca's identity crisis? (p. 232, lines 6-23)

22. How do Tyler's descriptions of Baltimore, the scenery during the drive from Baltimore to Macadam (pp. 127-28), and the town of Church Valley, Virginia (pp. 57-61), affect the atmosphere and mood of the novel? Do they reinforce any themes of the novel? Is Rebecca's life like the once elegant street of Baltimore that "never reverses" (p. 47, line 1)?

23. What are Will's good qualities? Does the reader sympathize with Will? Like him or dislike him? What happened at the family dinner that made Rebecca "end it" with Will that night (p. 218, lines 6-8)? Is Will in fact the one who was "superfluous"?

24. In several places, two characters' conversational paths converge. (For example, p. 64, lines 30-31.) Where else does Tyler use this style to convey how people talk to each other— but don't seem to really hear each other? Are these realistic conversations? What does it tell us about the way people communicate?

25. How does Tyler achieve a balance between the celebratory and the mournful in Back When We Were Grownups? Does one tone dominate the other?

26. Rebecca frequently feels that she is untrue to her own nature. (For example, p. 183, lines 14-15; p. 69, line 24; and p. 162, lines 25-) Is Rebecca really a "fraud" (p. 39, lines 28-29), or is this a common character trait?

27. Rebecca explains that she refers to Min Foo as her daughter but still refers to the other girls as stepdaughters because "acquiring" stepdaughters was the most profound change in her life (p. 234, lines 15-27). Are any of the other characters shaped by such profound events in their lives? Is Rebecca's a typical or understandable way people deal with such profound life changes, or does it say something unusual or significant about Rebecca and her own situation?

28. When Rebecca and Tina discuss Joe's poor driving, Rebecca recalls Joe's bout with depression and the reader glimpses a little crack in the veneer of Rebecca's perfect memories of Joe (p. 97). Dare we think that Joe's death was a suicide like his father's, and, if the thought occurs to us, doesn't it occur to Rebecca too? Might there have been more "bad" memories that Rebecca has blocked out?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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