You’d think the quiet lives that Dorothy and Aaron led would end uneventfully. Then came the storm that caused a tree to fall through their house, killing Dorothy. After Aaron moved in with his sister, Dorothy started coming back from the dead. As she shows up more and more, Aaron finds he’s looking not only at their relationship, but his whole life. And this includes his destroyed house, his disabled body, his relationship with his bossy sister and his job in the family publishing business. This is “The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler.
Anne Tyler is famous for taking the most ordinary and forgettable types of people and turning them into to extraordinary and unforgettable characters. She does this by starting with them in run of the mill situations and then she tosses in a twist to shake things up. It is almost as if she just sits back and watches how these people cope with what she’s thrown at them. The only thing left is for Tyler to write it all down. This is probably why I enjoy her books so much. Her characters come off feeling so natural and real, especially because they’re all flawed — sometimes physically, sometimes psychologically, and sometimes a bit of both. (I get a kick out of realizing that for the movies made out of her books, Hollywood has to downplay the actor’s good looks.)
In her latest novel, the twist is the ”ghost” of Dorothy. What is interesting is that she shows up seemingly as solid as any live person. This is the reason that Aaron is so bewildered. Not because she’s appearing at random times, but because no one else seems to be noticing that Dorothy is there. Taking into account that we all know that there is no such thing as ghosts; one would think that this is a step in a different direction for Tyler. However, all this is done without even the smallest indication that anything magical or supernatural is going on. Instead, we accept this apparition because we feel for Aaron, and we know that grief and mourning can sometimes have strange effects on us. And just because someone talks to or even sees a dead loved one, it doesn’t mean that they’re crazy; it just means that they miss them terribly.
Tyler described this herself in this book when Aaron tells the reader about seeing Dorothy, when she says: “But put yourself in my place. Call to mind a person you’ve lost that you will miss to the end of your days, and then imagine happening upon that person out in public. … You wouldn’t question your sanity, because you couldn’t bear to think it wasn’t real. And you certainly wouldn’t demand explanations, or alert anybody nearby, or reach out to touch this person, not even if you’d been feeling that one touch was worth giving up everything for. You would hold your breath. You would keep as still as possible. You would will your loved one not to go away ever again.”
Tyler is also a master of troubled relationships. Not that all the relationships are problematic, but that there is always something in them that is off-key. Readers will see these difficulties as trivial and easy to overcome, but the characters themselves — like real people — seem to find them insurmountable. This makes her characters all the more believable, and while we might get frustrated about some of the ways they act, we realize that had we been in the same situation, we might not have been any more sensible.
It is this naked, yet loving portrait of everyday people and life that really shines through in Tyler’s novels, and “The Beginner’s Goodbye” is no exception. What’s more, she does it in such a straight-forward, simple style that the prose just envelopes you and seeps into your very pores. And at fewer than 200 pages, the book just flies by. This is a bittersweet novel that will tug at your heartstrings and make you feel both happy and sad, without ever becoming maudlin or sappy. There’s little more to add than this book deserves a full five stars out of five and is highly recommended.