Anne Tyler’s 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is about holding on and letting go. Aaron Woolcott and his wife, Dorothy, have a typical marriage, with ups and downs, love and pain, and unspoken grudges. One day, after a minor spat, a tree topples over on the sun room of their home, killing Dorothy.
Set in Baltimore, where many of her novels take place, the story centers on the months following Dorothy’s death. After 11 years of marriage, Aaron cannot let go. He doggedly goes about his business, rejecting the sympathies and kindness extended by friends, until one day Dorothy’s ghost appears. In the hands of a lesser writer, this device might seem like a cheap ploy. Tyler uses the ghost of Dorothy to delve into the unresolved issues that haunt Aaron. Through his unexpected meetings with Dorothy, Aaron probes the small hurts that festered during their marriage as he yearns for resolution.
Aaron is a sympathetic main character. He is an unremarkable every-man, who has a crippled arm and leg and speaks with an occasional stutter. He was initially attracted to Dorothy, a doctor, because she took no notice of his handicap.
Although this is one of Tyler’s shortest books, at roughly 200 pages, it has a lot to say about love, marriage, and the fragility of intimate relationships. When his marriage is cut short, Aaron struggles to find normalcy in his life. He drags his feet on repairing his home until his take-charge sister, Nandina (a sharply drawn character) nudges him into action. His friends try to cheer him up. There is one hilarious scene where two of his male friends invite him to a restaurant for dinner and spend the entire evening not talking about their wives because they don’t want to bring up the memory of Aaron’s loss.
Tyler finds the most interesting occupations for her main characters. In this case, Aaron works in the family business, a boutique publishing company in which the authors pay to have their work published. This is perhaps a wry observation and commentary by Tyler of the current state of the publishing industry. The publishing house’s speciality are “how to” books called “The Beginners” series, which explains the title of the novel. In one scene, Aaron struggles as he slogs through a deadly memoir of an old man’s experiences in World War II in which the writer described every boring detail of his life as a soldier, and none of the terror of war.
This story ultimately is about love, loss, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Like all of Tyler’s work, The Beginner’s Goodbye is a masterfully prepared and satisfying entre, spiced with quirky, loveable characters.