Saturday, March 5, 2016

Review: The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

I remember the first time I saw a "Dummies" book. The concept seemed genius. Take an area of learning that was likely to be difficult or completely foreign for the average Joe and make it accessible and basic enough to be graspable; make it easy to learn. If I recall correctly, the books started out as a way into the new and exciting word of computer related things but because of their popularity, the success of their concept, and their immediate brand recognition, they quickly became ubiquitous as the entry level way into a whole variety of specialized areas, both technical and non-technical. And while they may seem less necessary now in a world of You Tube videos and other online tutorials, they served a real and previously untapped purpose when they came out. With them, you could learn to program a computer or build a container garden. You could learn everything you ever wanted to know about NASCAR or about anger management. They run the gamut from A to Z. Their scope was, and is, both practical and personal. But above and beyond whatever they purported to teach, there was a wealth of story in their existence. Why would someone need to consult them? What result will they lead the reader to in their pages? How will this new skill change the reader's life? In Anne Tyler's elegant novel The Beginner's Goodbye, she uses not Dummies Guides but their fictional counterpart, Beginner's Guides, to illuminate a life, a marriage, and grief.

Aaron Woolcott is a new widower. He uses his grief to hold himself aloof from others around him, including his sister Nandina. When he was a child, he suffered an illness that left him mildly disabled and he has long used his disability and frustration with what he sees as people's solicitude towards him to justify his unpleasant, often anti-social behaviour. When the novel opens, Aaron is devastated by his wife's untimely and unexpected death but it changes his curmudgeonly and prickly personality not at all. He is as unable or unwilling to accept kindness or help after Dorothy's death as he was before it. He intentionally keeps everyone at arm's length, believing that only the deceased Dorothy, practical, unfussy, and frumpy understood him. When he starts seeing her ghost, he is unsurprised by her reappearance but it prompts him to reexamine the life they lived. And it turns out that what he remembers may not be the way she saw it.

As Aaron comes to terms with his crippling loss, his sister and his co-workers at the family owned vanity press where he works at (they publish the Beginner's Guides to all sorts of things) try to offer him kindness and caring when all he wants is the space to be surly and bitter. Early on in the novel, his character comes across as distant and determined to be a martyr but he has to learn that while the grief is real and forever, the living must indeed go on living. There is no guide to get him through this terrible time in his life and Aaron chooses to stay at an emotional remove from everyone thinking that no one else can understand or appreciate the magnitude of his wrenching loss. This sort of clinical distance does keep the reader from finding Aaron an altogether appealing character, especially as his actions prove him to be rather a jerk and he starts to remember and reveal more about his marriage and his and Dorothy's roles in it. But because this is Anne Tyler, and because she's a gorgeous writer, you can't help but keep reading, wanting to know how Aaron will, in the end, learn to say goodbye to someone he might never have seen clearly in the first place, how he will go on with his life, and how he will change. The writing is spare and slow but the slow pacing serves the plot well and given the book's short length, the reader appreciates the chance to savor her time in the story. Tyler beautifully captures the loneliness and paralyzing inactivity, that fog that envelops a person after such a big loss. That she does it so well with Aaron, wounded in so many ways and not always sympathetic, is a testament to her skill here. This is an examination of life and death, perspective and change. It is quirky and wonderful.


  1. I remember loving this one. Glad it worked for you.

  2. I also enjoyed this book - here's my review By the way, did you read her last book - A Spool of Blue Thread? It was one of my favorite books of 2015


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