The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus, RRP£14.99, 198 pages
As an anatomist of ordinary people and their accommodations with daily life, Anne Tyler has frequently been likened, somewhat grandly, to Jane Austen. Perhaps, though, the most consistent of her themes, from The Accidental Tourist (1985) through the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons (1988) to The Amateur Marriage (2004), is the quiet heroism that lurks behind unremarkable doors and undemonstrative existences. It is a concern that makes Mrs Gaskell her closest spiritual predecessor, with Tyler’s Baltimore a latter-day Cranford.
What links Tyler’s characters is their ability to endure; whether it be marriage, family or old age, life is an ordeal to be managed. The trial she sets Aaron Woolcott in her latest novel The Beginner’s Goodbye is bereavement. Aaron is in his mid-thirties but has the closed-in attitudes of a long-term retiree. He is a tall and gangly man with a lame leg and twisted arm that are the result of infantile flu. He works for the family publishing firm, which specialises in vanity memoirs and a line of “Beginner’s Guides” – to everything from wine to dog training – that keep the company afloat. Like many of Tyler’s lead players, he is neither particularly likeable nor unlikeable.
Aaron was married to Dorothy, a radiologist eight years his senior, a foot and a bit shorter and “with enough padding to fill out the lines”. This ill-assorted pair suited each other well enough despite the mild disappointment of his family. “My father said she was ‘interesting’ – the same word he used when he was confronted by one of my mother’s more experimental casseroles.” The marriage is cut short when a tree crashes through the roof of their house and Dorothy is crushed by a Sony Trinitron television that leaves her chest a cave rather than a mound.
Her death leaves Aaron facing a new life. As an object of pity he is the recipient of meals cooked by his neighbours and left on his doorstep, while his colleagues at work fall silent when he walks in. This tact grates on him. “I wasn’t all that good at grateful acceptance,” he relates.
When it becomes clear just how much repair work his house needs, he moves in with his spinster sister, Nandina, back to his old room in the family home. She was never that keen on Dorothy and will at least spare him the mournful looks and the universal question, “How are you?” What irks Aaron most about his post-Dorothy world though, is that “your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with”.
His subconscious agrees and a year after her death Dorothy starts to reappear. She doesn’t just pop up but suddenly Aaron is aware of her presence as a warmth beside him or an outline on the periphery of his vision. First she shows up outside his home, then in a farmers’ market, then a shopping mall. Others can’t see her, of course, and Aaron is wary of asking her why she has come back in case it makes her leave.
Together they revisit the past and recall how they met and their slow courtship: “She didn’t even know it was courtship at first … oh I was cagey alright.” But the conversations he has with her are also the ones they never had when she was alive. They have love talks but also gently recriminatory ones too, perhaps the most honest discussions they have ever had.
What Aaron doesn’t see is that these appearances are part of the grieving process. They lead him, finally, to understand that: “It seemed we never quite got the hang of being a couple the way other people did.” It is a painful part of the cure but necessary if he is to come back to life.
Tyler’s handling is pitch-perfect: the book is a chat rather than a narrative and Aaron confides in the reader without pretence or affectation. What could be mawkish and cloying is gentle and touching, not least because she is a very funny writer. She is more aware than most novelists that humour is part of the human condition and she uses it as another means of uncovering the infinite subtleties of feeling or fallibility.
Of course, the moral of the tale is that we should pay attention to loved ones while they’re living, just as readers who want emotionally fulfilling fiction should pay attention to Anne Tyler.