Top critical review
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An ordinary bereavement.
on 4 April 2012
I've never read an Anne Tyler book before, but found the blurb inside the front cover of her new novel intriguing. The opinions on the back lead one to expect something funny, profound and moving. I'm sorry to say that I found "The Beginner's Goodbye" no more than OK, and am left wondering whether the quotes on the back come from reviews of this book or some of the author's earlier works.
This very short novel - a little less than 200 pages - is set in Baltimore and tells the story of narrator Aaron Woolcott's grief for his wife Dorothy, who dies when a tree falls onto their home and crushes her. If I liked the book as much as the critics seem to want me to, I suppose I would say that it is a gentle but poignant comedy. The manner of Dorothy's death is one of the few extraordinary events in the book; most of the time both the characters and the plot are fairly believable, and the comedy, such as it is, arises quite naturally. The book may help readers to think about how one should deal with people mourning a loved one; Aaron is quite a prickly customer, and many of the minor characters come unstuck when they try to help Aaron adjust to his new situation.
So why didn't I positively like the book? In the first place both the blurb and the first few pages mislead the reader into expecting something vaguely supernatural (the first sentence in particular), but after some early teasing we have to wait until the novel is around half way through for Dorothy's first post mortem reappearance. I might perhaps have enjoyed the first half more if I hadn't been waiting for this reappearance to happen. And, after waiting for so long, it eventually came as something of an anti-climax, whereas if I hadn't been led to expect it I might have been more disturbed by the event, as well as paying more attention to what I had expected at first to be no more than a brief back-story. Such pleasures as are to be had from this novel probably require quite careful reading, appreciating small details, and the nuances of everyday interactions and conversations between the characters; probably the most significant moment of Aaron's "moving on" occurs when he re-evaluates his way of dealing with other people, and the value of one particular person, after eating some home-made chocolate chip cookies. Some readers (perhaps mostly female ones?) will probably really appreciate the delicacy and subtlety of such moments, but I'm afraid they left me underwhelmed.
This isn't a bad book, but it is a book about a marriage, and what comes before and after (courtship and bereavement). If you read "The Beginner's Goodbye" expecting supernatural or paranormal fireworks you will probably be disappointed.