At our bookstore, we often get such requests. Some readers see books as a kind of medicine with the power to make the psyche whole. Knowing that, I keep lists. The first book which comes to mind at times like this is Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Many consider the novel to be her best. It certainly showcases her finest qualities.
Here is the plot: Macon and Sarah are grieving the death of their son. Ethan was murdered during the robbery of a fast-food restaurant. Unable to fathom how her husband mourns, Sarah asks for a divorce. Left on his own to cope with all this loss, Macon becomes the “Accidental Tourist” in the title. The family Corgi is another casualty, and his behavior drives the plot. When Edward starts attacking friends and family, Macon is forced to hire a trainer. And it is Muriel, the trainer – a wiry, make-it-up-as-you-go woman with an indomitable will – who brings about the healing in this book.
The story’s scope is neither epic nor widescreen. Yet Tyler touches on matters that affect us all. It is her unsentimental treatment of grieving and loss that makes this book so resonant. Take the scene where Macon thinks of Sarah: “Lately, Macon had …begun to view Sarah as a form of enemy. He’d stopped missing her and started plotting her remorsefulness… He liked to imagine her self-reproaches. He composed and recomposed her apologies.” Who hasn’t felt like that? For me, this kind of pitch-perfect emotional timbre sets the book apart.
Love is complicated in Tyler’s world. Yet without it, life has little meaning. Though Macon eventually moves in with Muriel, that doesn’t guarantee their happiness. Affection isn’t reason enough to marry someone. Macon states, “Maybe what matters is who you are when you’re with them.”
The author’s descriptions of Baltimore, where most of her stories are set, are clear-eyed, yet compassionate. Describing Muriel’s neighborhood, Tyler offers up its “murky alleys and stairwells full of rubbish.” Yet in the next breath, she presents us with, “women [who] emerged full of good intentions and swept their front walks, …rolled back their coat sleeves and scrubbed their stoops on the coldest days of the year.”
Though a self-professed atheist, Tyler depicts the numinous. When Macon took Muriel on her first airplane ride, she pointed out the window. “Macon leaned across the aisle to see… he had an intimate view of farmlands, woodlands, roofs of houses. It came to him very suddenly that every little roof concealed actual lives. Well, of course he’d known that, but all at once it took his breath away.”
Other traits in Tyler’s work involve her use of language. First, she has a grammar-fetish. In one of my favorite scenes, characters compete to give the worst example of impropriety: like using the word “nauseous” to mean “nauseated” or “literal” to mean “figurative.” This obsession appears often in her books. A second habit is Tyler’s use of syntax. For instance, Macon thinks disparagingly that Sarah “was the sort of woman who stored her flatware intermingled.” Tyler could have said “mixed”, or used the i-word as a verb. Instead she uses it to end the sentence, thereby telling us as much about Macon’s need for control as she does about Sarah. And then there’s her dialogue. One of my favorite quotes in the book is spoken by an anonymous character – presumably one of Muriel’s neighbors:
It was just as warm as this selfsame day I’m speaking to you but she wore a very fur coat.
How can a coat be very fur? And yet, as a reader I can imagine why someone would describe it that way. If fur is fancy, then “very fur” has got to be over the top.
I cannot end this review without praising Edward. From the “furrowed W on his forehead that gave him a look of concern,” to “the sweetish smell a favorite sweater takes on when it’s been folded away in a drawer unwashed,” Edward is one of the most endearing fictional dogs I’ve ever met. In some ways, he is more real than Macon’s son. And perhaps that’s as it should be, for life must go on.
Do you think books about ordinary people can be as important as those concerned with war and revolution? Have you ever fallen in love with an author’s voice? What book would you prescribe for someone who’d been through tough times?