Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye


For Anne Tyler fans (among whom I count myself), the arrival of a new novel of hers is a major literary event.  Tyler’s way of creating wonderfully quirky characters and placing them in universal life situations is probably what attracts so many of us to her work.  Her fans know not to expect lots of action or overly complicated plots from her; the woman writes beautiful novels about people and what makes them tick.  She has done it again with Aaron Woolcott and The Beginner’s Goodbye

Aaron Woolcott and his spinster sister, Nandina, run Woolcott Publishing, a company with two basic sources of revenue: what, before the advent of self-published e-books, was called “vanity publishing” and a long series of books for “beginners” that are even more dumbed-down than the real-world “for dummies” series that is so popular.  Aaron has recently lost his wife in a tragic, fluke accident and is struggling to say goodbye.  He badly needs to feel a sense of closure but, because Dorothy died almost immediately after an argument with him, Aaron is too filled with regrets to let her go.  Thus, the title of the book.

The novel’s self-description emphasizes how Aaron begins to see Dorothy at random intervals and places.  Sometimes she speaks to him, sometimes she does not.  Strangely, others often see Dorothy by Aaron’s side, but they instinctively focus on Aaron and never acknowledge Dorothy’s presence – even, it seems, to themselves.  Surprisingly enough, despite the book blurb’s emphasis on it, Dorothy’s return plays a much smaller role in the story than one might expect.    

Anne Tyler
The Beginner’s Goodbye is about how one man comes to terms with his grief.  I suspect that all of us handle grief somewhat differently and that we do not truly know ourselves until we are tested this way.  Aaron prefers to handle it internally despite the number of sympathetic and loving co-workers and friends with which he is surrounded.  It is easier for him to deny that he is suffering than to explain to his friends the level of grief he is feeling. 

But, as he will learn, the world continues to evolve, people change, and new relationships are formed.  I find that the first and last sentences of The Beginner’s Goodbye perfectly encapsulate Aaron’s story:

            “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

            “We go around and around in the world, and here we go again.”

This deceptively simple little novel has a lot to say about life and love.  Anne Tyler fans will jump all over it.  I hope that others less familiar with Tyler’s work will not miss out.

Rated at: 5.0

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