Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 336 pages; 2007.
What is it to be an American? And to what lengths will people go to fit in even when they come from far flung places? Is it possible to remain a foreigner even after you have lived in a new country for more than 30 years?
These questions — and more — are explored in Digging to America, Anne Tyler’s 17th novel, which has been critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic and was recently shortlisted for this year’s Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.
In typical Anne Tyler fashion, Digging to America revolves around a range of relatively ordinary characters in Baltimore dealing with extraordinary circumstances.
Two couples, both of whom are unable to have children, decide to adopt Korean babies. When they meet by chance at the airport on the day of their daughters’ arrival neither couple could be more different. Bitsy and Brad Donaldson are all-American — loud, brash and unselfconscious about turning Jin-Ho’s arrival into some kind of over-the-top celebration — while Ziba and Sami Yazdan, two American-Iranians, are quiet, shy and restrained as they wait for Sooki — later dubbed Susan because it “was a comfortable sound for Iranians to pronounce” — to be “delivered” into their arms.
From this day onwards the two couples and their extended families are inextricably linked. Each year they celebrate “Arrival Day” — August 15, 1997 — by taking it in turns to host a party. It is through these parties that each family’s individual differences — their attitudes, cultural backgrounds and hopes for the future — begin to shine through. The tension is, at times, palpable. But so too is the fun and the love.
While there is no real storyline to speak of — the plot simply revolves around the various “Arrival Day” celebrations and the events that happen in between — Tyler is able to explore two different views of America — the insider’s and the outsider’s — with tenderness and insight.
She charts the inner workings of the human heart like no other author, and the developing relationship between Sami’s Iranian-born mother, the independent-minded widow Maryam, and Bitsy’s widowed father, Dave, is the strength of this wise, moving and often funny book. I adored every precious word, but then I’d expect nothing less from this exceptionally talented author.