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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 25, 1941
Place of Birth:Minneapolis, Minnesota
Education:B.A., Duke University, 1961
Read an Excerpt
The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.
We were strolling through Belvedere Square, for instance, on an early-spring afternoon when we met our old next-door neighbor, Jim Rust. “Well, what do you know,” he said to me. “Aaron!” Then he noticed Dorothy beside me. She stood peering up at him with one hand shielding her forehead from the sun. His eyes widened and he turned to me again.
I said, “How’s it going, Jim?”
Visibly, he pulled himself together. “Oh . . . great,” he said. “I mean . . . or, rather . . . but of course we miss you. Neighborhood is not the same without you!”
He was focusing on me alone—specifically, on my mouth, as if I were the one who was talking. He wouldn’t look at Dorothy. He had pivoted a few inches so as to exclude her from his line of vision.
I took pity on him. I said, “Well, tell everybody hello,” and we walked on. Beside me, Dorothy gave one of her dry chuckles.
Other people pretended not to recognize either one of us. They would catch sight of us from a distance, and this sort of jolt would alter their expressions and they would all at once dart down a side street, busy-busy, much to accomplish, very important concerns on their minds. I didn’t hold it against them. I knew this was a lot to adjust to. In their position, I might have behaved the same way. I like to think I wouldn’t, but I might have.
The ones who made me laugh aloud were the ones who had forgotten she’d died. Granted, there were only two or three of those—people who barely knew us. In line at the bank once we were spotted by Mr. von Sant, who had handled our mortgage application several years before. He was crossing the lobby and he paused to ask, “You two still enjoying the house?”
“Oh, yes,” I told him.
Just to keep things simple.
I pictured how the realization would hit him a few minutes later. Wait! he would say to himself, as he was sitting back down at his desk. Didn’t I hear something about . . . ?
Unless he never gave us another thought. Or hadn’t heard the news in the first place. He’d go on forever assuming that the house was still intact, and Dorothy still alive, and the two of us still happily, unremarkably married.
I had moved in by then with my sister, who lived in our parents’ old place in north Baltimore. Was that why Dorothy came back when she did? She hadn’t much cared for Nandina. She thought she was too bossy. Well, she was too bossy. Is. She’s especially bossy with me, because I have a couple of handicaps. I may not have mentioned that. I have a crippled right arm and leg. Nothing that gets in my way, but you know how older sisters can be.
Oh, and also a kind of speech hesitation, but only intermittently. I seldom even hear it, myself.
In fact, I have often wondered what made Dorothy select the moment she did to come back. It wasn’t immediately after she died, which is when you might expect. It was months and months later. Almost a year. Of course I could have just asked her, but somehow, I don’t know, the question seemed impolite. I can’t explain exactly why.
One time we ran into Irene Lance, from my office. She’s the design person there. Dorothy and I were returning from lunch. Or I had had lunch, at least, and Dorothy had fallen into step beside me as I was walking back. And suddenly we noticed Irene approaching from St. Paul. Irene was hard to miss. She was always the most elegant woman on the street, not that that was much of a challenge in Baltimore. But she would have seemed elegant anywhere. She was tall and ice-blonde, wearing a long, flowing coat that day with the collar turned up around her throat and the hemline swirling about her shins in the brisk spring breeze. I was curious. How would a person like Irene handle this type of thing? So I slowed my pace, which caused Dorothy to slow hers, and by the time Irene caught sight of us we were almost at a standstill, both of us waiting to see what Irene would do.
Two or three feet away from us, she stopped short. “Oh . . . my . . . God,” she said.
“UPS,” she said.
I said, “What?”
“I phoned UPS for a pickup and there’s nobody in the office.”
“Well, never mind. We’re heading back there right now,” I told her.
I used the word “we” on purpose, although Dorothy would most likely depart before I entered the building.
But all Irene said was, “Thanks, Aaron. I must be getting Alzheimer’s.”
And off she went, without another word.
She would really have worried about Alzheimer’s if she had known what she’d just overlooked.
I glanced over at Dorothy, expecting her to share the joke, but she was pursuing her own line of thought. “Wild Strawberries,” she said, in a reflective tone of voice.
“That’s who Irene reminds me of. The woman in the old Bergman movie—the daughter-in-law, with the skinned-back bun. Remember her?”
“Ingrid Thulin,” I said.
Dorothy raised her eyebrows slightly, to show she was impressed, but it wasn’t so very difficult to dredge that name up. I had been enamored with Ingrid Thulin since college. I liked her cool, collected air.
“How long do you suppose it will be before Irene does a double take?” I asked Dorothy.
Dorothy merely shrugged.
She seemed to view our situation much more matter-of-factly than I did.
Maybe the reason I didn’t ask Dorothy why she had come back when she did was that I worried it would make her ask herself the same question. If she had just sort of wandered back, absentmindedly, the way you would return to an old address out of habit, then once I’d brought it up she might say, “Oh! My goodness! I should be going!”
Or maybe she would imagine I was asking what she was doing here. Why she had come back at all, in other words. Like when you ask a houseguest how long he’s planning to stay and he suspects you’re asking, “When can I hope to be rid of you?” Maybe that was why I felt it wouldn’t be polite.
It would kill me if she left. I had already gone through that once. I didn’t think I could do it all over again.
She was short and plump and serious-looking. She had a broad, olive-skinned face, appealingly flat-planed, and calm black eyes that were noticeably level, with that perfect symmetry that makes the viewer feel rested. Her hair, which she cut herself in a heedless, blunt, square style, was deeply, absolutely black, and all of a piece. (Her family had come from Mexico two generations before.) And yet I don’t think other people recognized how attractive she was, because she hid it. Or, no, not even that; she was too unaware of it to hide it. She wore owlish, round-lensed glasses that mocked the shape of her face. Her clothes made her figure seem squat—wide, straight trousers and man-tailored shirts, chunky crepe-soled shoes of a type that waitresses favored in diners. Only I noticed the creases as fine as silk threads that encircled her wrists and her neck. Only I knew her dear, pudgy feet, with the nails like tiny seashells.
My sister said Dorothy was too old for me, but that was just because I had foolishly told the truth when I was asked. Even though she was eight years my senior—forty-three when she died—she seemed younger, because of that good strong Hispanic skin. Plus, she had enough padding to fill out any lines. You wouldn’t really think about age at all, with Dorothy.
My sister also said she was too short for me, and it is undeniable that when Dorothy and I hugged, all the wrong parts of us met. I am six-feet-four. Dorothy was not quite five-one. If you saw us walking down the street together, my sister said, you would take us for a father and child heading off to grammar school.
And too professional, my sister said. Ha! There’s a novel objection. Dorothy was a doctor. I work as an editor in my family’s publishing firm. Not all that great a disparity, right? What Nandina meant was, too intent upon her profession. Too work-obsessed. She left for her office early, stayed late, didn’t greet me with my slippers in the evening, barely knew how to boil an egg. Fine with me.
But not with Nandina, evidently.
Maybe it was just a long, long way to travel, and that’s why it took Dorothy all those months to come back.
Or maybe she had first tried to do without me, the way I had first tried to do without her—to “get over” my loss, “find closure,” “move on,” all those ridiculous phrases people use when they’re urging you to endure the unendurable. But eventually, she had faced the fact that we simply missed each other too much. She had given in and returned.
That’s what I liked to believe.
What People are Saying About This
“An absolute charmer of a novel about grief, healing, and the transcendent power of love . . . With sparkling prose and undeniable charm, Tyler gets at the beating heart of what it means to lose someone, to say goodbye, and to realize how we are all, perhaps, always ultimate beginners in the complex business of life . . . A dazzling meditation on marriage, community, and redemption.” —Boston Globe
“A pleasure to read . . . Classic Tyler . . . The wonder of Anne Tyler is how consistently clear-eyed and truthful she remains about the nature of families and especially marriage.” —Los Angeles Times
“Like a modern Jane Austen, Tyler creates small worlds where she depicts in minutest detail the intimate bonds of friendship and family.” —USA Today
“Anne Tyler is one of our national treasures, and The Beginner’s Goodbye puts all of her skills on display: her warmth and wit, her generous embrace of her flawed characters, her clear-eyed observations about the inner workings of a marriage and the enduring bonds between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives.” —Jennifer Weiner
“The Beginner’s Goodbye is the purest distillation of an Anne Tyler novel imaginable.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Anne Tyler has no peer. Her books just keep getting better and better. In The Beginner’s Goodbye, I was surprised, intrigued, and delighted at every turn.” —Anita Shreve
“Anne Tyler never disappoints . . . Her insights about life, love, aging, marriage, siblings, grief, and unexpected happiness grow richer and deeper with each passing year and book.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Over five decades of exuberant shape-shifting across the fictional landscape, Anne Tyler has cut the steady swath of a literary stalwart, writing novel after novel whose most memorable characters inhabit a cosmos all their own . . . What makes each story distinctive is the particular way its characters rebel against hereditary confines, cope with fateful crises, or forge relationships with new acquaintances who rock their world . . . Once again, Tyler exhibits her genius for the incisive, savory portrayal of marriage.” —Julia Glass, New York Times Book Review
“This is what Tyler does better than almost any contemporary writer. She peers at the forgotten areas of the everyday, the bits that are hard to pinpoint, yet make up the bulk of our lives and relationships. And this, ultimately, is why she is such a satisfying writer: she looks at people—at life—from the inside out. This is a book not just about grief, but about hope . . . The Beginner’s Goodbye is diverting, certainly, but also deeply rewarding. There is, in short, no guilt in the pleasure of a new Tyler. We can only hope for many, many more.” —Sunday Times (UK)
“Beautifully intricate. By the exquisitely romantic emotional climax, Aaron’s ordinary life has bloomed into an opera.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Its insights will keep you up nights. . . . Ranks high in the hierarchy of Tyler’s works. And what a lineup that is.” —Chicago Tribune
“Warm, smart, deliciously written.” —More magazine
“As always, Pulitzer Prize winner Tyler brilliantly explores a stunning range of human emotion, poignantly considering the challenges of death while creating lovable characters whose foibles capture our hearts. Essential reading.” —Library Journal
“One of the things that makes Tyler’s work so radiant is that she seems to believe that people are inherently good and that, thanks to that goodness, ordinary lives can contain moments of great beauty, dignity, and hope. The Beginner’s Goodbye has all three . . . [Told] with characteristic warmth, sympathy and wisdom.” —Daily Telegraph (UK)
“A scintillating gem of a novel . . . Exceptionally lithe and sparkling . . . A funny, sweet, and wise tale of lost and found love.” —Booklist (starred)
“Elegant . . . An uplifting tale of love and forgiveness. By the end of this wonderful book, you’ve lived the lives and loves of these characters in the best possible way.” —Publishers Weekly (starred, Pick of the Week)
“Anne Tyler writes about real life, and in common with the finest fiction writers, such as William Trevor and Alice Munro, she does not engage with fantasy, as she is well aware that the ordinary is sufficiently bizarre . . . She is effortless, wise yet never knowing, and establishes a sense of having thought deeply about the given facts of any story . . . She is also sympathetic without being sentimental . . . Yet again she has articulated the supreme difficulties of human communication in a calmly insightful exploration of love and truth, grief and reality.” —Irish Times
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation between Anne Tyler and Robb Forman Drew
Robb Forman Dew is the American Book Award–winning author of several novels, including Dale Loves Sophie to Death and Being Polite to Hitler, as well as the memoir The Family Heart. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Robb Forman Dew: I was trying to recall how on earth we got to know each other, since we’ve been in touch—mostly on the phone, and sometimes on a daily basis—for at least thirty years. But we didn’t actually meet each other until about ten years ago, I think. I remember explaining to my third in a long line of literary agents that yes, I did know you, it was just that I’d never met you. She was a horrible woman and clearly thought I was being coy, but it was absolutely true. Do you remember how we’ve come to know each other so well?
Anne Tyler: I do remember. The New Republic asked me to review your first novel, Dale Loves Sophie to Death, which means it must have been 1981 or so. I was bowled over by that book, and one of its many virtues that I mentioned in my review was its respect for the significance of food. (I think you and I believe equally that someone’s attitude toward food reveals reams about character.) As I put it, I could have fixed the shish kebab your heroine served just from reading your novel. You instantly sent me a letter saying please not to rely solely on what the heroine did, since that recipe had been abbreviated; and you enclosed the full-length version. That tickled me no end. The shish kebab was delicious, by the way. But it wasn’t until we were serving together as judges for a fiction prize that we actually spoke together on the phone—the first of many phone conversations over many years. What surprises me when I look back on those conversations is how seldom we’ve actually discussed writing. (Once we spent a solid half hour analyzing a bathing-suit model in an Orvis catalog.) And yet, why is it that whenever I end a phone call with you, I somehow feel that we really were talking about writing all along?
RFD: You’re right. I come away with the same feeling, although we talk about books pretty often. Not our own books, of course. But maybe—at least in my case—our conversations are so satisfying because they reinforce my idea that our lives are not shaped by huge events—not wars, not even peace. The lives that interest us are more mapped out by . . . oh, getting the chimney repaired! Well, for instance, the Orvis catalog is hardly of universal importance. I don’t know anyone who’s ever bought a bathing suit from Orvis—unless you have. It’s mostly a catalog aimed at fly fisherman who own golden retrievers. Maybe I count on our friendship and our conversations for the same reason that I found one of the most revealing moments in The Beginner’s Goodbye to be when Aaron wonders why most men “viewed their military service as the defining event of their lives.” Do you know very many men to whom military service is their definition of who they are? Or of who they aren’t? Your father? Your brothers?
AT: Well, in a Quaker family that wasn’t a big consideration! But the reason I’m aware that many men do feel that way is that my parents’ retirement community had a weekly men’s group where every new arrival was invited to give a speech about a central experience in his life. My father reported, with some bewilder- ment, that almost invariably these men talked about their military service, although it had generally happened more than half a century before.
As for huge events vs. small events: I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me—and you too, I suspect. But I am guiltily aware that in my books, I tend to avert my eyes from the huge events, especially from those that are confrontational. For instance, in The Begin- ner’s Goodbye I did not show the tree actually falling on Dorothy, and in The Accidental Tourist I did not show the moment when the hero’s little boy is shot. That isn’t something I’m proud of; I believe it’s a kind of shirking. In fact, in the book I’m writing now I just described a fistfight, because I told myself I had to face these things more squarely. (Lord knows how it will read to someone who’s actually been in a fistfight!)
It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful. To get back to the all-important matter of the Orvis bathing-suit model: I think we were both interested that a woman who was actually a bit dumpy, with the beginnings of a tummy, posed so confidently. It called up all kinds of questions about where our attitudes about ourselves come from—why one person with a less-than-perfect figure would be strutting while another shrinks. See why I say that our meandering conversations may really be about writing after all? Character: I think that’s what preoccupies both of us, and dominates our books.
RFD: Oh, yes. That’s exactly right. The circumstances of my books are universal, but the people are particular. But you know, I don’t have the courage to think of them as possessing character— that sounds worrisomely like a moral judgment. I like to think of myself as being interested in various quirks of personalities. That’s the way I manage to shirk my responsibility. I know how odd this will sound, but when I finished The Beginner’s Goodbye, it seemed to me that it was a story I had already known. I don’t mean word for word—I don’t mean that I had any idea how it would unfold. But it seemed intensely famil- iar and also inevitable, even though it often surprised me. Finally I realized that over the years of reading your books I’ve taken up dual citizenship, here and in an entire world you’ve established. Readers always wonder not only why a writer writes, but how and why a writer chooses his or her subject. When you first began writing, did you feel the need to translate your particular world for a larger audience? Were you already certain of the perimeters of your fictional landscape? Oh, I apologize for this rambling question. Can you tell me why, for instance, your first novel didn’t happen to be your version of War and Peace?
AT: It doesn’t seem to me that I am ever completely free to choose my subject. Do you feel that way? I’m always saying, for instance, “My next book is going to be bigger. More eventful. It really will be War and Peace! But set in Baltimore.” And then that book is done and I think, “Uh-oh, it’s the same book as the last one.” I seem constitutionally committed to looking through a microscope rather than a telescope. When I first began writing, I did feel the need to tell people something, to put my world across to a larger audience. That’s probably why I no longer like those earlier books. What arro- gance, really! My reason for writing now is to live lives other than my own, and I do that by burrowing deeper and deeper, quarter inch by quarter inch, till I reach the center of those lives. But I’m not content to do it alone; I want other people to come into that center with me. It’s something like when a child finds a secret spot in the woods and immediately wants to show her best friend.
RFD: Anne! I don’t think you’re capable of arrogance. In fact, I don’t even think I’m capable of arrogance. I think, though, that what you’re describing is what I think of in my case as my innate bossiness. Even these days I want my reader to say to himself at some point, “Oh, right! Finally someone has explained the way I feel! Not only that, but she understands every thought and emo- tion I’ve ever had in my whole life!” My idea is that if I can just persuade the reader to pay attention, I can then explain how he can mend any unsatisfactory bits and pieces of his existence. I’m still amazed that I never succeed. I find I’m still grieving over Aaron’s realization of the nature of his marriage. It’s just about unbearable to me that he may think that he didn’t love Dorothy. Or that she didn’t love him. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that’s what he eventually concludes. But when The Beginner’s Goodbye came together in your mind as a book, did you consider what Aaron and Dorothy’s life would be if that tree had never fallen? Was that your first notion of what you were going to write about—their marriage? Are your char- acters full-fledged before you begin? Do you already know them, and your main chore is to represent them accurately, or do they surprise you? I know you and I come at our writing in different ways. You’re far more organized. I always envy you your index cards.
AT: Oh, Aaron never doubts for one second that he loved Doro- thy. (Does he know how much she loved him? Maybe only toward the end of the book.) And immediately after his statement that their marriage was unhappy he backpedals, you notice, to say that maybe it was not so much unhappy as merely difficult. Which is true: These two are awkward together, and hopelessly unskilled at revealing their feelings. But if that were the death knell for a marriage, we’d have a lot more divorces in this country! If the oak tree had never fallen, I think Aaron and Dorothy would have gone on as before—staying married and experiencing a measured bit of happiness together, though with something a little bit stunted in their relationship. Aaron needed that shake-up to become his better self, I think—more open and more flexible. In any case, their marriage in itself was not what I set out to write about. My first inkling of my subject was the book’s exact first line, which arrived as clearly as if Aaron had spoken it to me. It baffled me. I thought, “I’m supposed to write about someone who’s returned from the dead? That’s ridiculous! I have no inten- tion of doing that!” But ideas come slowly to me, if at all, and that seemed to be the one I was stuck with.
Besides, what Aaron said to me a few minutes later was, “I have a couple of handicaps. I may not have mentioned that.” Isn’t “I may not have mentioned that” always such a dead giveaway? You have to wonder what the person is trying to hide. Or, in Aaron’s case, why he’s trying to hide it.
I do make a point of writing down every imaginable facet of my characters before I begin a book, trying to get to know them so I can figure out how they’ll react in any situation. Most of what I write down the reader will never hear about. Still, I can be surprised from time to time once the book is in progress, and I enjoy those surprises in the same way that I enjoy discovering an unexpected trait in an old friend. I wonder if our approaches are all that different, though. I have the sense that we’re just writing down those facets in differ- ent places—I in my preliminary index cards, you in your actual manuscript, which you revise as you go.
RFD: I didn’t know it was Aaron who told you that! Were you in your study? Were you wondering about your writing? And what a remarkable gift! To read the first line of The Beginner’s Goodbye is a little like receiving an electric shock: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” We’re hooked in that single moment. And to my surprise I’ve discovered that a good many people who’ve read The Beginner’s Goodbye are even more perplexed than Aaron when no one else acknowledges what would normally be a remarkable event. Did you realize that some of your readers would assume Dorothy was literally there? Often the reaction of those readers seems to be a kind of horror at the fact that there’s no etiquette to cover the situation. Am I right to think that the peculiarities of manners and courtesy are particularly interesting to you?
AT: I made up my mind when I sent the book off to my pub- lisher that I wasn’t going to be evasive about this: No one sees Dorothy but Aaron. She’s not there. Or more accurately, she’s there only for him. What he interprets as his friends’ awkward- ness in acknowledging her is really their awkwardness in speaking to someone whose wife has just died. But because Aaron is the narrator, we have to see events through his slant of vision, even if that vision is flawed.
And yes, I am more than interested in the peculiarities of man- ner; I’m riveted. I just love it that a little sideways slip of the eye, a little compression of the lips, can reveal so much. I always tell beginning writers that they should run out and buy the works of Erving Goffman, the sociologist who studied the meaning of gesture in personal interactions. I have cause to think about Erving Goffman nearly every day of my life, every time I see people do something unconscious that reveals more than they’ll ever know about their interiors. Aren’t human beings intriguing? I could go on writing about them forever.
1. Aaron is handicapped on his right side as a result of a child- hood illness. Why do you think the author chose to give her main character such a handicap? Is it significant—a symbol or metaphor—or entirely coincidental? In her conversation with Robb Foreman Dew, Tyler comments that Aaron may be trying to hide his handicap and suggests there is a reason he does so. What do you think the reason is?
2. Does the way that Aaron’s mother and sister treated him when he was growing up impact his character as an adult? Or explain why he might have married Dorothy?
3. In Aaron’s recollections of initially meeting Dorothy and falling in love with her, he portrays himself as having been immediately besotted, though Dorothy herself seems less than scintillating. Is Aaron aware of this discrepancy?
4. After Dorothy’s death, does Aaron fully grieve for her, or is he reluctant to accept what has happened?
5. Why does Dorothy reappear so many months after her death? And why does she appear only to Aaron?
6. Aaron states early in the book (pages 11–12) that he is an atheist. Does this (lack of ) belief shed any light on Dorothy’s appearances?