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Learning to Live From the Dead
on 5 September 2013
A short, poignant account of a young widower, Aaron, who struggles to come to terms with his wife Dorothy's death in a freak accident, when she begins to appear as if alive and well at short intervals, and in unexpected places, like outside their house where she died, or at a mall sitting companionably next to Aaron. These visits become more prolonged and eventually she speaks, as if to tell him something important about their relationship.
In her usual way of imbibing her characters with distinctive traits, Tyler's protagonist, Aaron suffers from a disability brought on by a childhood illness that affects his gait, requiring a brace and a cane, which he has never quite gotten used to relying on, while Dorothy is fiercely independent, forthright, and an atypically "unnurturing" doctor. They are as mismatched as chalk and cheese, and Dorothy's reappearance forces Aaron to work through his grief to honestly confront the imperfections of their marriage, without the rose-tinted memories the bereaved tend to cherish.
Of course initially, he insists: "I liked to dwell on these shortcomings now. It wasn't only that I was wondering why they had ever annoyed me. I was hoping they would annoy me still, so that I could stop missing her", which casts these visitations in a romantic light. However, he acknowledges later: "Then why was our marriage so unhappy? / Because it was unhappy. I will say that now. Or it was difficult, at least. Out of sync. Uncoordinated. It seemed we just never quite got the hang of being a couple the way other people did. We should have taken lessons or something; that's how I felt."
Tyler retains her distinctive style of using deceptively simple prose that resonates deep and profound truths in this novel, but for some reason, I could not get a clear mental picture of Aaron, and pictured a slightly doddering 60 year old, rather than the 30ish he was meant to be, which is a sore point with me, because one of Tyler's strengths is her vivid characterisation. At some point, Aaron's colleagues and sister at the publishing firm inherited from his dad, blended into a noisy blur, and at pivotal points in the novel, I found I could not distinguish between two of the women, Irene and Peggy, and had to revisit earlier mentions of them. Perhaps I wasn't reading closely enough, but this novel still did not match up (in my mind) to her other works like "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant", "Earthly Possessions", or "Saint Maybe", just to name three from her impressive oeuvre of work.