This is the first in an occasional series of articles on authors I admire.
Anne Tyler, who recently published her 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is one of the most prolific and respected authors of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Breathing Lessons, (1988) and Pulitzer finalist, The Accidental Tourist (1985), both of which were made into movies, Tyler writes with uncommon depth and uncanny perceptiveness about families and the struggle for individual identity within the whole of the nuclear family.
In a profile on Tyler that included a rare interview with her, Jessica Strawser of Writer’s Digest wrote: “Her books are about families and the complications therein—marital discourse, sibling rivalry, resentment, and underneath it all, love. Tyler’s eccentric and endearing characters are so intensely real, so thoroughly developed, they come to life on the page—both for her as she writes and for the reader, who suddenly can see a bit of his own mother, father, brother or even self in their blurted-out words, their unspoken impulses, their mistakes, and with any luck, their moments of triumph.”
Her unique style is on display in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which Tyler considers her finest work. In a review of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, fellow author and literature professor Jane Smiley wrote of Tyler’s style: “Tyler is subtle and retiring as an author. Her style is precise and insightful, her incidents are full of interest and psychological weight, and her structure works to lay bare the workings of the family.”
Although I found Dinner a satisfying work, my favorite Anne Tyler novels are Earthly Possessions (1977) and The Ladder of Years (1995). The two novels explore similar terrain—a mother who is unappreciated by her family and has lost her sense of self. In both cases, the main character leaves her family, which in the hands of a less skilled writer, could come across as an act of selfishness, but in these two works it evokes empathy in the reader. In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte Emory decides to leave her husband. She goes to the bank to withdraw some money and is kidnapped. She decides during her ordeal that she doesn’t want to return to her family and actually begins to like her kidnappers. In The Ladder of Years, Delia Grinstead walks off the beach during a family vacation in Delaware and simply begins a new life without her family. Her long journey culminates in self-discovery.
As an author Tyler doesn’t follow trends or write big, grandiose novels. Her subject matter is the every-day travails of families and individuals. She once said that, “there aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel,” words that are anathema to most agents and publishers. And yet there are few authors who can match the consistent high quality of her work.
In the Writer’s Digest interview, Tyler said she doesn’t think of her audience while she is writing a novel. “I’ve learned that it is best not to think about readers while I’m writing. I just try to sink into the world I’m describing. But at the very end, of course, I have to think about readers. I read my final draft pretending I’m someone else, just to make sure that what I’ve written makes sense from outside,” she said.
Tyler was born in Minneapolis but grew up in North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University at the age of 19 and completed her graduate work at Columbia University in Russian studies. She lives in Baltimore, where many of her works are set.
What is your favorite Anne Tyler novel and why?