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?”
“Yes.”
“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.

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

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

A-Spool-of-Blue-Thread

Fiction – hardcover; Chatto & Windus; 368 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

No one writes about family the way that Anne Tyler writes about family. She not only looks at what makes them tick — the complicated relationships, the prejudices, the little gripes and irritations, the humour and heartaches, the love and support, and the ways in which myths and stories develop and get passed down through the generations — she makes you genuinely care about, and identify with, the people she writes about.

Her latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a classic example of her talent and skill at crafting absorbing and totally believable tales about ordinary Americans living out their relatively safe and comfortable lives. It’s her 20th novel (and said to be her last) and features her hallmark eccentricity, perceptiveness and humour. I’d also argue that it’s a fitting pinnacle to her long-established career.

Time to move on?

Set in her (usual) Baltimore, it centres on a married couple, Red and Abby Whitshank, who are approaching that time in life when they must consider whether to remain living in their much-loved family home or move into some kind of accommodation for the elderly. Both are battling health problems: Red has had a minor heart attack and is going deaf; Abby is beginning to wander off and lose her memory, perhaps a sign of dementia.

Their four adult children — Denny, Amanda, Jeannie and Stem — decide that it’s no longer safe for them to live alone and they call a family meeting.

Red said, ‘What’s up?’
‘Well,’ Amanda said, ‘we’ve been thinking about the house.’
‘What about it?’
‘We’re thinking it’s a lot to look after, what with you and Mom getting older.’
‘I could look after this house with one hand tied behind my back,’ Red said.
You could tell from the pause that followed that his children were considering whether to take issue with this. Surprisingly it was Abby who came to their aid. ‘Well, of course you can, sweetie,’ she said, ‘but don’t you think it’s time you gave yourself a rest?’
‘A dress!’
His children half laughed, half groaned.
‘You see what I have to put up with,’ Abby told them. ‘He will not wear his hearing aids! And then when he tries to fake it, he makes the most unlikely guesses. He’s just… perverse! I tell him I want to go to the farmers’ market and he says, “You’re joining the army?” ‘

From this pivotal point in the novel, A Spool of Blue Thread goes back through two generations to look at both sides of Red and Abby’s own upbringing to see how events and the course of their lives — and their own parents’ lives — brought them to this moment in time.

What results is a multi-layered narrative that explores how the Whitshanks rose to become a rather comfortable and well-regarded family despite their poor and impoverished roots, which stretch back to the Great Depression. It shows how social aspiration became the driving force for material comfort and success, how changes in 20th century America provided new opportunities for hard-working people — especially Red’s father Junior, a carpenter — to generate wealth and buy (and build) the kinds of homes they could previously only dream about. (Indeed, this novel is as much a story about the history of the Whitshank family home as it is about the family itself.)

Dotted throughout this narrative are the highs and lows, the funny moments, the secrets, the dreams and desires of one ordinary American family trying to navigate their way through a constant flux of change.

A roller-coaster journey through one family’s history

I realise I haven’t gone into the nitty-gritty of this novel, which largely comprises set pieces (or events) in this family’s history, but to do so would ruin the enjoyment for others yet to read it. What I loved about this book was the roller-coaster like journey it took me on. From the opening chapter, in which a young adult Denny tells his father on the telephone that he’s gay, I wasn’t quite sure where it was going to take me. It twists and turns, loops back on itself, and shows how one misunderstanding after another leads the Whitshanks to their current place in time.

It’s incredibly funny in places and heartbreaking in others. The characters are all vividly drawn and recognisable (every extended family, for instance, has a Denny in there somewhere, the type of person who creates endless problems and constant worry for his or her parents) and the dialogue, as ever, is pitch-perfect.

I’ve read pretty much every novel Anne Tyler’s ever written — I’ve reviewed Digging to America and The Amateur Marriage here, but the others were read in my late teens and twenties long before this blog — and this one is right up there with the best. For a short while it lets you enter and inhabit an entire and perfectly described world filled with interesting and intriguing characters.

If I was to fault it it would perhaps be its length — it’s slightly too long — and the change in key midway through the book. But in the grand scheme of things those are minor quibbles.

As you may recall from the competition I ran in late April,  A Spool of Blue Thread has been shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The winner will be announced on 3 June. I’d love to see Tyler win it, if only to round off her writing career with a well-earned high. In the meantime, if you’ve read the book, please do share your thoughts below — I’d love to know what you thought of it. Were you intrigued by the Whitshanks as much as me?

UPDATE — SATURDAY 6 JUNE
Congratulations to British writer Ali Smith whose novel How to be Both won this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier in the week. You can find out more via the official website.

Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘Digging to America’ by Anne Tyler

DiggingToAmerica

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.

Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘The Amateur Marriage’ by Anne Tyler

AmateurMarriage

Fiction – paperback; Vintage (exclusive edition for Red magazine); 306 pages; 2005.

What is it that makes a marriage work? How much give and how much take is acceptable? Should each partner have a diametrically opposed personality to balance things out? Or is it better to be compatible in temperament and attitude?

What happens to the children if things go wrong? And to what extent does the state of our parent’s marriage reflect our own personalities and attitudes?

These questions — and so many more — form the backbone of this astonishingly perceptive and near-perfect novel by Anne Tyler.

The Amateur Marriage spans three generations of one family living in suburban Baltimore. It charts the course of one couple’s life together, beginning with their whirlwind war-time romance, marriage, children and then, unsurprisingly, their divorce some 30 years later. This is not a match made in heaven.

Michael Anton, the son of Polish immigrants, is plodding, cautious,  thorough and little on the dull side, while Pauline is good-looking, gregarious, spontaneous and slightly scatty. Michael is content to run his mother’s grocery store over which they live, but Pauline wants so much more, including a new house in the suburbs to bring up their young family.

Their life is filled with spats, hurtful off-the-cuff remarks and very little kindness. It is obvious that they are both seeking something that their opposite number cannot provide but fail to find a way out of their predicament: this is an era in which counselling is not an option.

It is not until their eldest child, 17-year-old Lindy, runs away from home that the cracks in their marriage begin to take their toll: Pauline thinks the rifts can be patched but Michael’s dogged stubbornness will not yield. When they later inherit a grandchild they did not know existed they muddle through until Michael, unable to take his wife’s unpredictable moods any longer, walks out…

But there is much more to this story than this perceptive and oh-so true dissection of a marriage. It’s also a story about family relationships,  the ties between siblings and how we cling to the past to make sense of the future.

Quite akin to Tyler’s highly acclaimed (and my personal favourite) Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, it reveals how the little things — everyday routines, conversations and decisions — make up the bigger picture of our lives. It’s a very knowing novel, incisive and tuned-in to what makes ordinary people tick, and for that reason Tyler’s cast of characters and their individual behaviours seem completely believable: the Anton’s could, indeed, be your next-door neighbours.

If you are looking for a thoughtful, intelligent, page-turning read that centres on family life, provides a good dose of tragedy tempered by comedy (the humour is particularly endearing), then The Amateur Marriage should fit the bill perfectly.