Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 178 pages; 2020.

Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, is classic Anne Tyler: absorbing, perceptive and warm-hearted, but underpinned by a current of pathos.

It tells the story of Micah Mortimer, a 41-year-old man, who does his best to live a quiet, understated life in which he never puts a foot wrong.

He has a “woman friend”, Cass, who teaches fourth grade, but they live in separate apartments and lead fairly separate lives, only catching up on a semi-regular basis for meals, overnight stays and weekend outings.

Day-to-day, he follows a relatively regimented schedule — going for a run at 7.15am every morning, for instance, and cleaning his basement flat according to a rigid routine.

He makes his living as a computer technician, running his own business called TECH HERMIT, where he makes home visits to sort people’s computer and printer issues out. He also moonlights as the super at the apartment building in which he lives.

He is cordial and friendly to people, but he’s not social and has no male friends. But this is his life and he has no cause to examine it.

Of course, this wouldn’t be an Anne Tyler novel without something extraordinary happening to an ordinary person, throwing things into disarray and causing characters to reassess their situations. In Micah’s case, two things happen: an 18-year-old preppy-looking kid turns up on his doorstep claiming Micah is his father, and his girlfriend Cass breaks off their relationship because he does little to help her when she fears she might become homeless. Both events test Micah’s view of himself — and his life.

Character-driven novel

As a character-driven novel, this is a perceptive look at a seemingly happy middle-aged man whose life is thrown off kilter.  For all his stability and level-headedness, you only have to scratch the surface to realise that Micah is not a particularly confident person. He might not be able to control how other people behave, so he has spent his life focusing on the things he can control — making sure his house is spotlessly clean, doing a job that doesn’t challenge him too much, keeping Cass at arm’s length because if he makes a real commitment he could potentially get hurt.

Micah, however, doesn’t have enough self-awareness to realise that this is what he does. He’s puzzled when he turns up to a family gathering — he is the youngest of four children — and finds his sisters and in-laws taking the mickey out of him. When he announces that he and Cassie have broken up, they urge him to try to get her back.

“Tell her you’ll change your ways,” Phil advised him.
“Change what ways?” Micah asked.
This made them all start laughing; he didn’t know why. […]
“Uncle Mickey’s kind of … finicky.”
“I am not finicky,” Micah said.
“What day is it today, Micah?” Suze’s husband called from the foyer doorway. […]
“What do you mean, what day? It’s Thursday.”
“Is it vacuuming day? Is it dusting day? Is it scrub-the-keyboards-with-a-Q-tip day?”
“Oh, Dave, leave him alone,” Suze said.
“He doesn’t mind! Is it window-washing day?”
“Well,” Micah said grudgingly. “It’s kitchen day, as it happens.”
“Kitchen day! Ha! Your kitchen has a day all its own?”
“And what does that involve, exactly?” […]
“On kitchen day I clean the counters and the appliances and such. And one complete cabinet.”
“One cabinet?”
“In rotation.”
They laughed again, and Micah gave an exaggerated scowl. He wasn’t sure why he played along with them like this. (Even encouraged them, some might say.)

This is a novel about missteps and misperceptions to the point of almost farce. Even the novel’s title, which comes from short-sighted Micah mistaking a fire hydrant as a “redhead by the side of the road”, suggests a farcical element to his life.

There are a lot of misunderstandings too, owing largely to lack of communication, or people jumping to conclusions. For instance, Cass thinks that Micah deliberately has someone stay over in his guest room so that he won’t have to invite her to move in when she’s evicted. But it never even occurs to him that he should ease her fears of homelessness by offering her to move in with him.

By the same token, Cass lacks the directness to say what she feels, which would help resolve the issue.

Comic and heartfelt

Redhead by the Side of the Road is a very humane book, brimming with comic moments and heartfelt deeds. It’s cosy without being cloying, moving without being sentimental, and life-affirming without being moralistic.

I adored it, and for all of Micah’s annoying habits and lack of spontaneity, I loved spending time in his company. It only makes me want to work my way through Anne Tyler’s backlist — most of which I’ve already read pre-blog.

13 thoughts on “‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler”

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Tyler, but your description of this as humane sums up what I remember of her writing. I like the shound of this a lot.


    1. Oh, she’s so good. I have loved her since reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant at school when I was 15. Spent most of my 20s reading her work. She really understands human psychology.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed your review. Yes, I’ve just finished this and it marks a return to form for Tyler. I loved her novels of the eighties and nineties, Ladder of Years, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourists etc and I don’t think her recent novels have been as good, but this one drew me in.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Nicola. It’s been awhile since I read anything by Tyler. Like you, loved her earlier stuff (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my favourite) but I’ve not been much inclined to read her later stuff, with the exception of A Spool of Blue Thread, which I enjoyed and which, at the time, was said to be her last novel.


  3. Agh, Kim, I’m going to disagree with you on this one. I love Anne Tyler’s books, but for me this (along with The Beginner’s Goodbye) ranks as one of my least favourite, and the reason for my coolness on both books is the same. The main character of The Beginner’s Goodbye is a quiet, bookish 37-year old man. I read it when I was 37. Micah in Redhead… is coming up on his forty-fourth birthday. I read it a couple of weeks shy of my own 44th. Not only are their ages (at the time of reading) the same as mine, but character-wise they aren’t a million miles off: I should be able to relate to these men, but they both read like much older people. I also partially disagree with you that Micah lacks self-awareness – with regards to Cass he certainly does, but when he is at the party at his sister’s house and the family are poking fun at his habits I don’t think he is “puzzled”: Tyler says “He wasn’t sure why he played along with them like this. (Even encouraged them, some might say.)” I do the same thing, and I’d say Micah knows he’s doing it and probably has a fair idea why – he lacks confidence and using himself as the butt of the joke is his one sure-fire way of making them laugh and feeling included. I think Anne Tyler knows someone like Micah and Aaron (in Beginner’s…) but I don’t think she understands them as well as she thinks she does. And I hated the overly-sentimental ending where Micah has his road to Damascus moment and breaks down – it feels untrue to the character and I don’t like the way it implies his life somehow needs changing rather than just accepting this is the way Micah is.


    1. Fair enough… and how spooky about the ages in which you read these two books ! I didn’t read The Beginner’s Goodbye so I cant comment on that novel but I really loved this new one, perhaps because I read it at a time when my anxiety levels were through the roof and it was such a simple, life affirming story that it calmed me down. 🤷🏻‍♀️


      1. Oh, I can completely understand that. And it isn’t that I didn’t like the book – I don’t think Anne Tyler could write a bad book if she tried. Even the mundane stuff like Micah going out and fixing people’s tech problems is weirdly gripping in her hands 🙂 I think I ended up feeling weirdly defensive of Micah, and the weirdest part is I wanted to defend him from Anne Tyler, which makes no sense whatsoever!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. This is what I’ve said – it’s not my favourite of her books but a lesser AT book is still a good book. I personally dislike Noah’s Compass and Morgan’s Passing more than these two. And I get what you say about the age thing as I read One Day when I was the same age and era as the protagonist and hated it for that!

          Liked by 1 person

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