Friday, July 13, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye and The Age of Grief

Reading Anne Tyler's latest novel, The Beginner's Goodbye one is reminded of the tenuousness of life as well as its unpredictability. It brings to mind another novella -- The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley. In both, the authors deal with loss and examine the conflicting truths inherent in marriage.

The narrator in Jane Smiley's novella deeply loves his wife and has three young daughters with her. When he suspects her of having an affair, he is forced to re-examine everything he holds dear. Most of all, his innocence is shattered.

I am thirty-five years old, and it seems to me that I have arrived at the age of grief. Others arrive there sooner. Almost no one arrives much later...What it is, is what we know, now that in spite of ourselves we have stopped to think about it...But when you are thirty-three, or thirty-five, the cup must come around, cannot pass from you, and it is the same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from. (p. 154, The Age of Grief, Ballantine Books, 1992)

In The Beginner's Goodbye (2012), Aaron Woolcott must come to terms with the sudden death of his wife and his less than perfect relationship with her. He, too, is thirty-five years old, although his set ways make him appear older. Unlike Smiley's narrator, Aaron is not handsome, but rather, is afflicted with a limp and only partial use of an arm. He also has a slight speech impediment. Having suffered a childhood with an over-protective mother, he seeks out the cold and unnurturing Dorothy Rosales as his wife. Unlike the marriage of Smiley's narrator, his was not one of passion and common interests. They lived parallel lives: she as a radiologist and he as editor of his family's small vanity press. This press publishes a beginner's series--The Beginner's Childbirth, The Beginner's Book of Kitchen Remodeling, The Beginners Book of Gifts, and many more. Hence the book's unique title.

Supporting characters are Aaron's doting sister, Nandina; Gil, the contractor with the heart of gold, and the motley assortment of people who make up the office staff. Tyler describes each person endearingly with his or her share of strengths and foibles.

This is the first Tyler novel that makes use of the supernatural. When the book opens, we meet Dorothy as a ghost. But neither the reader, nor Aaron himself, is fully sure whether Dorothy is an apparition, or merely a part of Aaron's unconscious. Either way, she provides a means for him to analyze his marriage and the reasons for his initial attraction. Ultimately, talking with a ghost allows Aaron to come to terms with his life and to finally move on.

The Beginner's Goodbye is an easy and enjoyable read. It deals with serious issues, but never with a heavy hand. Anne Tyler, no stranger to loss, examines grief and the corresponding emotions it engenders: regret, anger, loneliness. But she mixes her book with laugh-out-loud humor that furthers our empathy for her quirky characters.

Similarly, The Age of Grief: A Novella and Stories of Love, Marriage and Friendship, by Jane Smiley, is a collection that explores the mysteries of love in all its facets. Both writers capture the mysterious in the mundane.

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