“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler

“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012) – 198 pages

 Anne Tyler has always walked a fine line between the believable and the contrived.  Many of her novels have eccentric gentle characters to which she gives unusual traits.  Such wonderful novels as “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”, “The Accidental Tourist”, “The Amateur Marriage”,  and “Searching for Caleb” have all centered on characters which the ordinary world would probably pass by, yet she has put these unusual strange characters in stories that are tremendously moving.  One might say that Tyler’s novels almost always center on gentle offbeat characters that come to cherish each other’s eccentricities.

 Tyler’s new novel, “The Beginner’s Goodbye” follows that same pattern of introducing eccentric characters, but this time it felt to me like she crossed the line into contrivance.  There are several colorful woman characters here each with their laundry list of ‘delightful’ oddball ways.  There is the deadpan wife Dorothy, the over-controlling sister Nandina, the workmate Peggy always ready with a basket of food. 

 It doesn’t help that our 35 year old male protagonist and narrator, Aaron, is rather an old woman himself.  Tyler’s male characters frequently seem a little too rounded without any of the annoying sharp edges most men in real life seem to have.   Aaron who is our narrator in this novel has a detailed interest in women’s clothes

 “It wasn’t clear to me how a short-sleeved sweater could provide much warmth, but she seemed very fond of this one, which was white and sort of gathered at the shoulders, so that it swung out like a cape.  The sleeves were hemmed with narrow knit ruffles (wouldn’t you know), and two more ruffles ran down the straight part where the buttons were. “  

 I doubt any guy would talk like that.

 Aaron and his sister Nandina work in a publishing company where the authors pay to get their work published.  One book line they specialize in are beginners’ guides such as “The Beginner’s Book of Kitchen Remodeling” or “The Beginner’s Income Tax” or “The Beginner’s Wine Guide”.  Throughout the novel, there are serious or humorous suggestions for more beginners’ titles such as “The Beginner’s Book of Letting Go” or “The Beginner’s Menopausal Wife.”  This, I suppose, is meant as gentle humor, perhaps a little too gentle. 

 Aaron’s wife Dorothy dies suddenly quite early in the novel, and there are loose ends between Aaron and Dorothy that hadn’t been resolved.  Perhaps the most moving scenes in the novel involve the resolution of this unfinished business between Aaron and Dorothy.  

A Baltimore Neighborhood

I am not a novice to Anne Tyler novels.  In fact I’ve read nearly everything she has written, and she has always been on my short list of the novelists I most admire. However I consider “The Beginner’s Goodbye” a lesser Anne Tyler novel to the point I questioned some of the techniques she uses here.  Approaches used to great effect in other novels seemed here to be mere contrivances.  In other Tyler novels, the story would center around perhaps two or three gentle offbeat characters, and it is a revelation how they make their way in the modern world of Baltimore.  In “The Beginner’s Goodbye” about seven of these characters come dancing out at the reader, each with their own ‘endearing’ quirks.  Beware of a quirkiness overload.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by KellyS on April 16, 2012 at 2:24 AM

    Thanks for this review. I’ve read a few Anne Tyler novels and especially enjoyed “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.” I do hope to read this novel at some point, so enjoyed getting the preview — and the warning!



    • Hi Kelly,
      Reviewing anything is a tricky business because what may be one’s favorite might be someone else’s disaster and visa-versa. Anne Tyler is usually one of my favorites, but not this time.



  2. Posted by kimbofo on April 18, 2012 at 8:48 PM

    I’m a Tyler fan and like you I have loved “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”, “The Accidental Tourist”, “The Amateur Marriage”, and “Searching for Caleb”, so it’s interesting to hear your thoughts on this new one. I’ve got a copy in my TBR but haven’t yet cracked it open. Initially I was excited about the prospect of reading it, but then when I found out it featured a kind of ghost I wasn’t quite so sure. Now I will definitely have to read it to see if my impressions chime with yours.



    • Hi Kimbofo,
      I like that spirit where you want to definitely read a book to see if our impressions chime. I’ve been a big fan of Anne Tyler since 1978, and only a couple of her books have I not been entirely bowled over by, and this one happens to be one of them. But like Shakespeare said, maybe it was something I ate or a sleepless night or something else. Judging books is certainly not an exact game.



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