Anne Tyler’s nineteenth novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, opens with the sentence: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”
The Beginner's Goodbye
The Beginner's Goodbye
Reviewed by Marika Cobbold
Is it a ghost story? A romance? A domestic comedy? A study in bereavement? The answer is that it is all of those things and more. The novel’s narrator, thirtysomething Aaron, has lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree, a sun porch, a television set and some missing biscuits. Through brief flashbacks we catch glimpses of the woman he lost. Dorothy, “short and plump and serious-looking”, was dedicated to her work as a hospital doctor, and resolutely determined not to fuss over her attractive and mildly disabled husband. She is an appealing creation.
Bereft by her death, Aaron seeks solace in his work in the family publishing firm (whose biggest seller is The Beginner’s series of guidebooks to everyday life). He devises ways of avoiding his bossy but well-meaning sister Nandina – described as “one of the last remaining women in America who changed into a housecoat at the end of every workday” – and fends off concerned neighbours bearing unwanted casseroles. He doesn’t, however, get round to repairing his damaged house and eventually the ceiling caves in, leaving him with no option but to seek refuge with Nandina in the old family home, where his boyhood room is still as he left it 20 years earlier.
Chivvied by Nandina, he finally engages a builder to carry out the repairs to his own house. Enter Gil Bryan, a quiet man with a noisy past. (I must admit that, whereas I took Dorothy’s return from the dead in my stride, I found Gil Bryan – a builder who never runs over time, covers the furniture with clean dust-sheets and leaves the place immaculate – a little harder to believe in).
At this point, and in characteristic fashion without fuss or fanfare, Dorothy returns, standing quietly at the corner of the street. This first fleeting visit leaves Aaron both comforted and aching for more. Dorothy continues to pop up in the most unexpected of places, and as her visits grow longer, the two of them fall back into old marital patterns. They reminisce, share jokes and, increasingly, bicker. Anne Tyler has a remarkable gift for finding the magic in the everyday and the everyday in magic, and through these funny, tender scenes, Aaron gains a fresh understanding of himself, of Dorothy and of their marriage; an understanding that allows them both finally to let go.
Along the way, there are some wonderful moments with Aaron’s authors and colleagues, and some great lines – such as Aaron’s response to being set up for a date with a young widow: “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we can share.” Some of the characters and situations in The Beginner’s Goodbye are overly reminiscent of Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, and Aaron reads more like a man in late middle-age than someone younger, but these are minor quibbles. Tyler is a master of the telling gesture, with the ability to sum up a person in a handful of words. In The Beginner’s Goodbye, she displays these talents to marvellous effect, marrying seemingly inconsequential details and commonplace incidents to create a whole that is even more satisfying than its considerable parts.