Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mixed Bag

Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler, Read by Blair Brown, Recorded Books, LLC, 2001

Much to do has been made of the first sentence of Anne Tyler’s novel, Back When We Were Grownups, and it certainly does have a kind of captivating fairy tale quality to it. “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Having never read any Tyler (though having always heard good things about her and having had her recommended to me by a number of people who know next to nothing about my tastes) I had mixed hopes.

And a mixed bag is what I got. While there’s no question that Ms. Tyler is a talented writer, capable of sketching quirky characters who aren’t merely odd in place of having been given fully fleshed characters, there is a kind of preciousness to her writing that can be annoying. Just consider the names of the cast for a sample of that: Poppy, Aunt Ida, Min Foo, NoNo, Biddy, Patch, and Alice Farmer. No, none of these are animals and there are no colorful illustrations.

Instead, the book is an examination of middle-age regret, the “wrong person” from the opening line being in this case not the person Rebecca Davitch always thought she was or thought she would be when she was younger. I’m not a fireman, an actor, or a best-selling, critically acclaimed Nobel Prize winning author beloved of naked ladies internationally either, so when Tyler writes of not becoming the person you wanted to be, she is writing for everyone I suspect.

Back When We Were Grownups starts with Rebecca hauling a young boy, Peter, out of a creek during the middle of a family softball game. The novel is rather tricky to follow at the very beginning as there are simply too too too many characters for an opening scene. I hold that character introduction works best if done over the course of the first couple chapters rather than dumping ten individuals down on page one and expecting the reader to catch that Min Foo is actually related to Biddy. It’s not a connection you’d initially make on your own, is it? This is one of those books you need to go back and read the first chapter or two to catch the subtleties of relationships apparent from the start but not obvious the first time around.

As a primer, let’s just say that Rebecca is a widower running her dead husband’s bed and breakfast; Poppy is her Alzheimer’s stricken step-uncle (though the two are like a married couple at times); NoNo, Patch, Biddy, and Min Foo, are all the children of Rebecca and her dead husband (though only Min Foo (who is not really Asian, but the nickname stuck) is actually both of theirs); and Hakim, Jeep, Troy (who is gay but lives with and is not married to Biddy), and Barry are the respective significant others.

Rebecca is harried, agreeable, and regretful, and the book moves along in the lives of this Davitch family all the while Rebecca tries to find ways to reconnect with her earlier life, her earlier self, who she was before she up and married Joe Davitch. She tries to go back and finish her old thesis on Robert E. Lee, she looks up the man she had dated previously to Joe and goes out on a couple of dates, and all in all, she finds that the person she is now is more comfortable to her than the person she used to be (or used to think she was).

It’s an amusing conceit, as there are far too few books written about midlife crises that are either a.) about women or b.) written as gentle comedies. And Tyler writes of her eccentric clan with undisguised fondness; maybe too much fondness. In a novel where everyone is beloved, there are no sharp edges or they don’t have the necessary prickliness to really make the plot move. And move Back When We Were Grownups doesn’t do. It waddles, it dawdles, it meanders, it ambles and strolls. At times this is a pleasant thing, a relaxed visit with some friendly people; at other times it’s just so damn exasperatingly slow and kooky.

The subplot involving Rebecca’s dates with William, her ex from so long ago includes a dinner scene in which William introduces Rebecca to his estranged teenage daughter, Beatrice. The daughter has multi-hued hair, piercings, and dresses in black; she has a bad attitude and resents her father. It’s a bit too easy a portrait, the character flits into and out of the story for no discernible reason, and the whole scene does little save potentially show that no one’s life turns out as they planned. Not that that is staggering news.

Weirdly, too, at one point in the dinner, while William is out of the room, Beatrice tells Rebecca that she’s only there because her father promised her her own email account. As if she couldn’t get one on her own. I backed up and listened to this passage again and it still was there. Is Tyler unaware of how email actually works? It seems like it — and not understanding email casts grave suspicions that she even remotely understands Beatrice or someone of her generation.

For reasons I can’t quite fully grasp, this book at no point in its narration managed to hold my enthralled interest. Anne Tyler is supposed to be All That, and this book is supposed to be irresistible, yet I was a duck, and this book was water pouring over my back. Nothing stuck, nothing clung, nothing truly appealed. It’s dryly amusing, though not necessarily a hoot. As stated, Tyler clearly has a knack for writing about off-beat people but she doesn’t do much with them in this book save move them in and out of set pieces designed for them to bitch bitch bitch about their lives, one after another.

It struck me while reading this that it’s one of those books that might appeal to me more when I get older, the tang of regret might have more impact. There are some books and films about much older protagonists that are appealing regardless of my age, while some just don’t cut the mustard. A Month by the Lake, I’m Not Rappaport, Waking Ned Devine are all charming examples of senior citizen stories I love. Back When We Were Grownups doesn’t appear to be falling into that category.

Blair Brown reads the novel with unaffected good humor and a lightly tripping tone that seems an ideal match for Tyler’s whimsy. Last seen here delivering a completely different kind of family novel, Brown has a nice little side career in the making and I’d certainly hope to hear more of her.

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