Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel, several books after her publicly stated intention to give up writing, is the saga of the Baltimore-based Garrett family, spanning four generations from 1959 to 2020 in the throes of the Covid pandemic.
With its focus on only eight specific situations or incidents over this period of time, this really seems more like a series of short stories, in which many significant events like a marriage or a death have to be inferred. The continual change in the point of view provides insights into how some characters perceive each other, but with many family members and friends being two-dimensional “extras”, so numerous that it is hard to keep up with them, I rarely felt emotionally engaged.
It is probably intentional that there are so many mundane details of ordinary daily life, from which Anne Tyler can conjure the farcical situations, by turns amusing or poignant, and the wry insights for which she has long been praised. US readers old enough to recognise and recall the cultural references from the 1950s may feel waves of nostalgia, although I had to look up Salk vaccine (developed in the US for polio) and just gloss over the Amercanisms. However, more so I think than with her earlier books, at times I found the banality and weight of descriptions, often expressed in a folksy style, unbearably tedious, and persevered to the end only to avoid missing some final “big reveal”, which would of course be very “untylerish”. In fact there are a couple of minor revelations at the end – to the characters concerned, if not to the reader.
The novel raises a few questions for discussion. After marrying too young, when Mercy Garrett’s children leave home, she feels free at last to pursue her desire to become an artist. Without formally separating from, or even divorcing her devoted husband Robin, she leaves him to go and live in a studio, but does so gradually, returning to cook the evening meal, or do the laundry, but never facing up to an open discussion about the situation. Accepting this as feasible, is this an act of courage or cowardice? Is it, as some readers believe, a belated assertion of feminist independence, or simply the act of a self-centred, calculating person?
Just as an undone French braid leaves “ripples” in the hair, “that’s how families work too,” as one character observes. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever”. This is patently clear, but hardly an original thought. The way families may “hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions”, both “little kindnesses” and “little cruelties” is a more interesting issue.