I try to be open to new writers and each year read a few debuts or authors I’m unfamiliar with, sometimes on other’s recommendations, sometimes at a writer’s or publisher’s request. Still, for me, there is a clear gold standard reserved for those writers who, over decades of wonderful books, always satisfy me, challenge or teach me, make me laugh, or bring me to tears.
I began reading Anne Tyler in the late 1980s, at the urging of my late dear friend Gerry. Incidentally, my then teen-aged daughter fell for her then, too. Anne Tyler persists today as one of our country’s great novelists. My list of favorites includes but isn’t limited to The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, Saint Maybe, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Digging to America, Ladder of Years, The Beginner’s Goodbye, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. My most recent read was Vinegar Girl, a delightful adaptation of Taming of the Shrew that is part of the author-by-invitation Hogarth Shakespeare series (possibly more about that another time).
Anne Tyler’s painstakingly human characters simultaneously steal your heart and get under your skin, much the way your own family can. She’s one of the few writers whose new books I will always seek out. She is a master of cultural and family dynamics, odd and ordinary, and of the impact that seminal life events, both predictable and unexpected, have on us within and beyond the context of our relationships and prescribed roles. She can isolate what seems like the tiniest detail—A Spool of Blue Thread—and build a story around it that’s as abundant with universality and meaning as it is with the quirks and tics of everyday life. I’ve never read anything more poignant about the loss of a spouse than The Beginner’s Goodbye. Whenever I see or hear or read about the sometimes curious circumstances that give “lost” people comfort, I think about Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Saint Maybe. Digging to America is a brilliant and highly relevant examination of the idea of “home” that finds it far more fluid than most of us would think. The Pulitzer Prize winner Breathing Lessons is rich with lessons of lasting relevance to marriage, parenthood, and family life, however fractured. I could go on and on.
In my first college-level writing course, I was advised to “write what you know.” This maxim has been challenged over time as a buzz-kill for the imagination. Still, for me, the best novels, the ones that win a lifelong place in my head and my heart, are those that ring true. Anne Tyler’s characters sometimes display a quirkiness that on the surface seems a stretch; but once you go deeper, you understand how fundamentally true they are. Her brilliance is her ability to reveal these lessons so subtly in the construction, actualization, and completeness of her characters. There isn’t one that I wouldn’t love to run into on one of those Baltimore streets and invite for coffee, some shared wisdom, and a laugh or two.
If you’re a younger reader who doesn’t know the joys of Anne Tyler, do yourself a favor now and read any one of her books. They are as timeless as they are perfect, and you will most likely want to read another.
Anne Tyler’s next book , Redhead by the Side of the Road, is due April 7, 2020 and is available for pre-order now. Many thanks to Vintage/Anchor Publicity for her photo.
Note: I always prefer book to movie, but you may enjoy several of Anne Tyler’s novels that been adapted for the screen. The Accidental Tourist, with William Hurt and Geena Davis, remains one of my favorite films of the 1980s. Breathing Lessons, with Joanne Woodward and James Garner (how could you go wrong with those two?) as Maggie and Ira, and Saint Maybe, featuring Mary Louise Parker and Blythe Danner, were both well done Hallmark Hall of Fame productions. All three were entertaining and respectful of the source. They are available on Amazon Prime via the links above.