Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

I love Anne Tyler. She writes like I wish I could write, with a causal style that seems so easy and isn't, and when you actually take it apart you realize that it's not casual at all. Every word matters. And there's always a great zinger, that one sentence or phrase that ties the seemingly casual four paragraphs together with a "See? This is where I was going."

Given the demise of bookstores (who would have predicted three years ago that I would bemoaning the closure of chains!!!!), I buy actual books whenever I can. I have a bottom-basement e-reader. I use it on occasion. But even those who love readers will note that it's not the same read. It's like my job as an editor. When I really need to pick a manuscript apart, I have to print it out. The three-dimensional aspect of paper, type, and your eye/hand whatever contribute to a deeper read. I should ask my opthamologist why.

Reading for real enjoyment (or for work) needs that three-dimensional component to it. Naturally, I have read several books on my e-reader and have enjoyed them. But as I was browsing in my local bookstore the other day, I saw a copy of a book that I adored (The Paris Wife) that I had purchased as an e-book, and I loved it so much that I've decided to buy it. In hardcover. Because it was that good and I think that if I read it in hardcover, I would enjoy it even more.

Anyway, I saw that Anne Tyler was out with a new book [The Beginner's Goodbye (BG)] and I rushed to buy it. Well, I don't know if it qualifies as a book, more novella than novel, but why quibble? She is one of my favorite American authors: Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and The Accidental Tourist are all fabulous reads, top notch. She's like the American Jane Austen, except her books aren't about unmarried women in the English countryside, they are about unhappily married couples in Baltimore. There's always a quirky aspect to her stories and I like that. Because I think most people are quirky, they just try to hide it.

Did I like it? Well, yes and no? I add the question mark because I'm still thinking about it (which I think is always a good thing, except in the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a book that I couldn't get out of my head because the popularity of such a mediocre book had me mulling over the vagaries of the publishing industry for weeks). The Beginner's Goodbye has a great premise (dead wife comes back to resolve on some level what had been an unhappy marriage).  Tyler always has some thoughtful observations on relationships, and what I've liked about her previous novels is that she ends her books with her characters earning a type of happiness, but it's not all wrapped up in a bow. This book's ending had a big fat ribbon around it with sparkles on the ribbon. Not only did the ending feel false, I think she could have ended it without the final chapter and it would have been a much stronger book--although even shorter.

Also, if you want to read a book that I think has very similar elements, and, in fact, feels like the same book but in its final draft, read The Accidental Tourist (TAT). In BG the protagonist suffers a stroke as a child and is paralyzed on one side. In TAT, our protagonist suffers a broken leg. Both men are almost destroyed by a death in their family, both protagonists end up with their houses being unfit for habitation and move in with their sisters, and both of these sisters, who seemed fated to spinsterhood, end up making improbable marriages. Both men work at small publishing houses that feature books in a niche market. Finally, both men end up marrying their polar opposites. Okay, BG doesn't have a dog in it, I admit. But this struck me as being essentially the same novel. At many points in this novel, I thought that the protagonist of TAT was speaking when it was Aaron of BG. I loved TAT, so it's not like I can say I don't like BG. But when I put it down (it's a two-hour read max), I wanted to pick up TAT again and savor it, because The Beginner's Goodbye felt unfinished and unrealized, and worse, a retread.

In short, it's a well written (if somewhat limited) book, but if you want to read it all fleshed out, with a fully imagined plot and some kick-ass characterizations, pick up The Accidental Tourist.