Back When We Were Grownups
by Anne Tyler
Published by Knopf
274 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Anne Tyler's fans, like her fictional characters, are just one big dysfunctional family, clamoring for her next book (she now has 15 of them), but not always reacting charitably, sometimes finding a flaw here, a weakness there. On a well-known book Web site I found no fewer than 53 reader reviews of Back When We Were Grownups and I could hear those voices as if they were piping up in the middle of a family picnic: "Loved every word" ("she was always my favorite"); "such a disappointment" ("ungrateful daughter"); "delightful and delicious"; "boring", and so on.
I think the reason readers feel so free to jump in with commentary, pro or con, is that they somehow feel they're part of Anne Tyler's quirky literary family. She's one of them, someone they not only know but love (and sometimes snipe at). What these readers may not realize is what a rare gift it is to be able to draw a readership that personal and intimate. Contrary to how it looks, this hasn't come easily or quickly, but over decades, and with a lot of hard work and careful crafting.
But writers this good can make it look easy. (Fred Astaire looked like he never practiced, too.) Most people become so caught up in Tyler's funny, all-too-familiar family dynamics that they miss the subtleties, the inevitable dark undercurrents, the soul-wracking losses her characters must endure.
One of the more common beefs about Back When We Were Grownups is that things aren't neatly resolved at the end. This is likely more intentional than her fans realize. In spite of her great charm and laugh-out-loud humor, Tyler generally writes in a minor key, sorrow forming dark underchords beneath the infectious melody.
Tyler's 15th novel is no exception. Rebecca Davitch is a plump, pleasant-looking woman of 53, "wide and soft and dimpled, with two short wings of dry, fair hair flaring almost horizontally from a center part. Laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. A loose and colorful style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady."
In the middle of a boisterous family gathering in the summer of 1999, she suddenly comes to the realization that she has no idea who she is. "She had turned into the wrong person" is the way Tyler puts it: a droll way of saying something very painful indeed.
Rebecca's life hasn't unfolded so much as fallen on her like a series of heavy boxes. She has spent most of her energy coping, admirably and cheerfully, bearing God knows what kind of inner strain all the while. We soon find out that the domestic hubbub erupting all around her isn't really hers. She married at 20 into a ready-made family of three little girls with the unlikely names of No-No, Patch and Biddy. The girls adored their selfish, abandoning natural mother and treated Rebecca like an interloper. Her solution was to try harder. Though she and her husband Joe had a daughter of their own (bizarrely named Min Foo), it did little to make Rebecca feel like a true member of the Davitch clan.
Rebecca's domestic strain is compounded by Joe's sudden death in a car crash, piling grief on top of alienation. A young woman with four stairstep daughters and no husband must find a way to survive. Not intentionally, but as part of the natural drift of things, Rebecca takes over the family business renting out the bottom floor of their charming old house for parties. It is typical of Tyler's stinging sense of irony that the business is called The Open Arms (the opposite of the reception Rebecca received).
And so, over the years, Rebecca (nicknamed Beck by the Davitches) has learned to cope by keeping her party face on. She evolves by necessity into a combination social director and referee, working like the very devil and receiving no appreciation at all except from Joe's younger brother Zeb, who hangs around the fringes mooning over an oblivious Beck.
Put-upon women are common in Tyler's emotional landscape, upsetting some of her more feminist-leaning readers. Her characters don't go mad or rebel but try valiantly to adapt and, even if they run away, (as in Ladder of Years), they always come back in the end. Though it's not supposed to happen that way, it generally does, giving Grownups the fresh if astringent taste of that strange thing we call "real life."
Portraying that life in all its mundane glory is what Tyler does best. Because no one else is willing to take him in, Rebecca lives with her widowed uncle-in-law (her late husband's father's brother), a 99-year-old relic named Poppy: "He was one of those old men who appear to curl up as they age, and his chin was practically resting on the table." Every family has a Poppy, a fussy old man included in gatherings so he won't feel alone, but it stuns Rebecca to realize she "had spent more years now with Poppy than with anyone she'd ever known; and she didn't even especially like the man, which was not to say she actively disliked him."
Once Rebecca realizes she has turned into the wrong person, she begins to scramble for a way to get herself back any way she can. Wasn't there a time, before the Davitches, when she was bookish and intense, practically an intellectual? Casting her mind back to her interrupted college days, she decides to hook up with her old boy friend Will Allenby, the one she was supposed to marry before Joe Davitch swept her off her feet.
This romantic fantasy falls hilariously flat when Rebecca realizes that Will has turned into a prematurely old fuddy-duddy devoid of all social graces. When they meet in a restaurant, it's obvious Will doesn't get out very much:
The hostess said, "May I tell Marvin what you're having to drink?"
Though Rebecca's misadventures in self-reclamation are genuinely funny, there are dark rumblings throughout this novel: the revelation that Joe's father committed suicide and that Rebecca lost her own father at age nine, burdening them both with crushing grief; the implication that Joe suffered from carefully-disguised depression; the fact that Rebecca's stepdaughter Biddy, a caterer obsessed with food, is grotesquely thin, "every vertebra visible down the back of her neck". These facts aren't funny but awful and harrowing.
Tyler similarly pulls veils off the romanticized institution of marriage: "In any marriage, you end up knowing more than you should about the other person." A character comments on someone who is bereaved, "Maybe the two of them together made a unit that worked,and whichever one of them went first would have left the other, oh, just ... lopsided and lame."
We all know each person in a couple should be independent and strong and that everyone should have the right to fulfill their own personal desires. But those of us who have lived for a while realize how nearly impossible this is and how seldom it actually happens. Tyler's books sometimes provoke angry responses because she presents human reality not as it should be, but as it is. This takes courage and remarkably clear eyes.
But this sort of perception leads to the most amazing, bang-on descriptive passages, as in this sketch of Rebecca's very elderly mother:
She was eighty-seven years old a little cornhusk doll, straw-colored and drily rustling.
Poppy's tiresome speeches can suddenly turn touchingly eloquent:
"People imagine that missing a loved one works kind of like missing cigarettes. The first day is really hard but the next day is less hard and so forth, easier and easier the longer you go on. But instead it's like missing water. Every day, you notice the person's absence more."
And then there is Rebecca's comment, jarring in its realism:
"Doesn't it seem to you, really, that all of us love people at least partly for their usefulness?"
Rebecca Davitch is not the sort of woman who appears on Oprah's "Remembering your Spirit" segment, telling us all about the metamorphosis that led her to transform her life. All Beck can afford is a modest renovation. "There is no true life," the novel concludes. "Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be." This doesn't match the current myth of a life of continuous improvement, but it does taste of reality not bitter, but refreshingly edgy and tart, like a bite of fresh lime.
The people who post those jibes on Tyler's novels may not be aware that she is one of our most gifted scribes of the everyday. Like Rebecca Davitch, Anne Tyler does her job so smoothly and gracefully that it's easy to overlook her particular genius. | July 2001
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.