Top positive review
Keep on trying. But never get too close.
on 30 October 2013
"with your family, if with no one else, you have to keep on trying."
So reflects Pearl Tull, the pivotal character in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), Anne Tyler's ninth novel. It is also, more or less, the author's view:
"This is what's so fascinating about family life. You can't really run away that easily. So you've got to figure out how to get along."
Surely true for most of us, most of the time. But it's a curious thing to say about this novel, because Beck Tull, Pearl's husband, does run away, leaving Pearl to bring up their three kids: Jenny, Cody and Ezra. The book follows this American family, as the children grow up and make their way in the world; it reaches back to Pearl's childhood in the 1900s and closes with her death in 1979. As with all Tyler's novels, the setting is Baltimore, an east coast American city about the size of Glasgow.
Tyler has said that Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is her favourite among the twenty or so books she's written. There is perhaps less narrative momentum than in The Accidental Tourist, her tenth novel, but the characters here are wonderfully drawn: the unworldly Ezra, with his restaurant; the competitive and driven Cody, an efficiency consultant, and serious-minded Jenny, who becomes a pediatrician.
The novel is full of the off-the-wall comic observations which make reading Tyler a pleasure. This is Beck talking:
"She's got this daughter, no-good daughter, thirty-five years old if she's a day but still residing at home. Eustacia Lee. No good whatsoever. Lost two fingers in a drill press years ago and never worked since, spent her compensation money on a snow-mobile. I'm not too sure I want to live with her."
At the same time, she is thought-provoking about the character of married life. Psychologists regard closeness or intimacy in marriage as a desirable thing. Beck disagrees. Explaining to Cody why he walked out, he says this:
"Oh, it's the closeness that does you in. Never get too close to people, son - did I tell you that when you were young? When your mother and I were first married, everything was perfect. It seemed I could do no wrong. Then bit by bit I guess she saw my faults...She saw that I was away from home too much and not enough to support her, didn't get ahead in my work, put on weight, drank too much, talked wrong, ate wrong, dressed wrong, drove a car wrong."
The suggestion here is that a more distant relationship, constrained by rules of courtesy and restraint that would apply to strangers might be preferable to a close relationship in which the parties feel they have permission to criticise their spouse. It's a subversive idea; it's probably also true.