After lavishing Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance with praise last year — in fact, it was named in my Top 10 Books of 2018 — a few readers got in touch lamenting its place in that echelon, labelling Tyler’s novels ‘boring’ and homogeneous. Honestly, I’ve not read enough of her work to confirm or deny those allegations; of her 22 books, I’ve read six of them. All I know is, each one of them has been of a sufficiently high quality to warrant further exploration into her backlist. Sure, many navigate similar themes and locales, and revolve around thoroughly messed-up families — but honestly, I can’t name you an author more capable of rendering complex emotions with such devastating clarity and sympathetic intelligence; whose I novels I’ve become increasingly infatuated with. It’s not a matter of if I’ll get around to reading all of Tyler’s novels, but when, and prolonging that process as long as possible.
The narrator of The Beginner’s Goodbye is Aaron Woolcott, who works for a family publishing company, who are the originators of the successful Beginners series, which breaks large topics into manageable increments. So less ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Cooking,’ more ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Boiling an Egg.’ Following a childhood illness, Aaron’s right arm and leg are paralysed, so he wears a brace, uses a cane (when he’s not purposefully leaving it behind) and drives a modified car. He also suffers from a bad stutter. As a result, his mother (now dead) and older sister have sought to protect him from the harsh realities of the world, thinking Aaron hapless prey. Aaron despises that notion — spends his days “fending off the two women in my life” and they try, in his eyes, to “cosset me to death.” Which is why he falls for the brusque, almost aloof, Doctor Dorothy Rosales, eight years his senior, who doesn’t treat him with kid gloves. Even Aaron admits: he deliberately chose a non-caretaker as a wife.
But when Dorothy is killed in a freak accident — so swift and unlikely, it’s almost comical — Aaron is forced to revaluate his life, and his marriage. He begins to perceive its cracks, but also the comfort he garnered from Dorothy’s presence. Their marriage was less than ideal: in moments, told in flashbacks, it feels like there’s no affection between the two at all. But they were a unit, had established a routine, valued their companionship, even if it was at times distant. The Beginner’s Goodbye deftly handles Aaron’s nosedive into grief; his steadfast refusal to accept the offerings from neighbours, and the companionship of friends and family, which climaxes with Dorothy’s “return” from the dead; a mirage conjured from extreme melancholic loneliness. But it’s through his dialogue with Dorothy that Aaron gradually begins to move on.
The Beginner’s Goodbye is a light, engaging, poignant story about love and loss. I adored it until its denouement, which reads a little false, more like a fairy tale, a little too convenient, and far too conventional. Good Tyler; not great Tyler. And yet, somehow, still better than most.