Anne Tyler has the uncanny ability of inviting the reader into her parlor and asking them to stay awhile. Her stories unfold so naturally and comfortably that the reader is almost a participant, a character in the tale, albeit an observing non-speaking one. She captures real life and its inner sanctum. All of her characters are unique in their own way and lovers of Anne Tyler’s particular style of storytelling will really like this book because they will see themselves or someone they know in each of the characters and they will smile at that recognition or realization, from page to page. From the mundane to the more moving and memorable moments of life, her storytelling gift, with all the little bits of information about life that are just dropped offhandedly in normal back and forth conversations, will open the reader’s eyes to their own life.
This book traces the multigenerational story of the Whitshank family, several generations of hard working people, three generations of fairly ordinary individuals with distinct personalities and dreams. Some were social climbers, some were content with whom they were, some were unable to find themselves, but each represents a real person you could pick out of a lineup of your own friends and family, maybe not completely in that shape or form, but certainly in its parts. The author describes the metamorphosis of each family member as he/she develops throughout the story. She deftly illustrates their feelings so that you experience their problems; some are ordinary, some extraordinary as time passes and each of them ages and matures. Almost all of life’s experiences are explored, but never with a heavy hand. Issues are discussed and presented as if they were just everyday occurrences happening in the lives of all people, and they probably are, when you come right down to thinking about it. That is really the biggest gift of the story; it is real life presented in a calm, palatable way even when the worst of life, with tragic consequences, is confronted. We witness the unfolding of ordinary day to day living as the characters handle what comes before them, some better than others, as is the case with all families. There is always one who steps forward to deal with the problems.
Quietly, she illustrates the nature of associations; some based on weakness, some on strengths, some on false narratives, some on kismet, but all have their own way of evolving, like it or not. Some characters mature later and some earlier, some come to terms with their lives in the by and by. Some need to have things clearly told to them and some need to have things intimated. Sometimes, white lies are necessary to preserve relationships and yet sometimes they explode them beyond repair. The biggest lesson she presents the reader with, and one that should be obvious to all, but isn’t always, is that conversation and communication are the key ingredients in family relationships, or perhaps all relationships. Secrets are damaging, even when revealed. Secrets prevent us from knowing, and sometimes, knowing is all we really want and need! If one party shuts off the conversation, there can be no resolution, there can only be a problem left hanging in the air to languish until the end of time. The problem will fester and grow and morph into a problem that never existed, but rather becomes one of the imagination.
All kinds of relationships are examined; those between parents and children, children and parents, grandkids and grandparents, friends and friends, neighbors and neighbors, in short all relationships anyone might have, and she has finely tuned each one to let the reader see how the characters interact, how they think, how they face their rivalries, and how they ultimately work out their differences, depending on their personalities and reactions to each other in each situation. It is like being provided with a window into our own lives, watching secrets and plans evolve into life-changing moments. We are given the opportunity to see how these characters work out their problems in the future, an opportunity we aren’t afforded in real life, in anything other than real time, but each reader will have an “aha” moment at some point in the story that they will be able to relate to their own lives.
The novel clearly points out how a family builds up, grows, and then deteriorates and reshapes itself, as the family moves on, ages and grows in different directions, especially when one or another sucks the air from the room, requiring too much attention, feeling too sorry for themselves, or feeling themselves too important or superior to the others. In short, it points out the way the characters grew, aged and declined and perhaps grew again. It points out the natural pattern of all life, with its losses, joys, troubles and fears. It points out that it is necessary for someone to be the peacemaker, as well. In the end, everyone seemed to find their rightful place in life, to find themselves in one way or another, and it would seem that the way things happened were they way things were meant to be. No one character was perfect, but they were all able to talk to each other, and that was the key to the way they were able to work out the family problems and their own. Blame was shared when necessary, but borne alone when only one was at fault. They were able to consider what the other person said, even when they didn’t agree with them. Even when there were rifts in relationships, they were forgivable, not unending.
Because this was an audio book, the personality of each character was more clearly defined by the tone of voice and expression given to the character by the reader. This made it easier to discern the nature of the beast and to identify with their personalities and their personal problems.