This, Anne Tyler's 20th novel, is one of the books on the 2015 Man Booker Prize longlist.
Like Tyler’s other novels, this is a chronicle of family life. This time it is the Whitshank family of Baltimore that is under the spotlight. The first part focuses on Red and Abby, the septuagenarians who are still living in the family home built by Red’s father, and their four adult children and families. The second half looks back in time to show how Red and Abby and Red’s parents (Junior and Linnie Mae) met and married.
The book examines family dynamics in such a way that every reader will find some similarities with his/her own family. There are jealousies, resentments, and secrets. Each family member has a role, such as the prodigal son or the nurturer or the peacekeeper or the bossy sibling, and everyone has emotional needs that come into play.
Like a spool which keeps spinning out its thread, things are handed down through the generations. The house and business, for example, came to the family because of Junior’s industriousness. There are similarities in physical appearance: “their leanness was the rawboned kind.” Talents and traits have also been inherited: Red and Jeannie, his second daughter, are all talented with their hands like Junior, whereas Merrick, Red’s sister, and Amanda, Red’s oldest child, share Junior’s concern for social status.
The Whitshank family is described as “one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just . . . specialness.” Indeed “they imagined they were special,” but one of their quirks is “they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine.” These descriptions suggest one of the major themes in the book: the stories we tell ourselves and others may not be accurate reflections of reality. So many of the characters have romanticized memories, but it turns out that the truth is less glamorous and more complex. Abby, for example, repeatedly tells the story of falling in love with Red on “a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon,” yet she fails to mention that she was dating another guy at the time. Linnie talks about her love of Junior being “’Just like Romeo and Juliet,’” but the truth is much darker.
The Whitshanks have created a family mythology around two stories. One is about how Junior came to build the family home and the second is about Merrick’s marriage to a man who was once her best friend’s fiancé. The narrator comments, “Patience. . . was what the Whitshanks imagined to be the theme of their two stories – patiently lying in wait for what they believed should come to them.” Outsiders, however, might have a more objective view: “But someone more critical might say that the theme was envy . . . [and] both stories had led to disappointment.” The Whitshanks choose to have a partial view of the truth.
Controlling the family story is of importance to Abby; at one point, she complains, “’The trouble with dying . . . is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending.’” Another example concerns their summer neighbours for 36 years. Amanda realizes that they might have “noticed a hidden crack somewhere – a sharp exchange or an edgy silence or some sign of strain” and so the Whitshanks choose never to talk to the next-door cottagers. Exchanging greetings with someone new might involve acknowledging their lack of specialness: “’we’d have to give our boring names, and our boring occupations.’”
Tyler is not judgmental, however. The point is that the Whitshanks are no different than any other family: “There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence. And in looks, they were no more than average.” They, “like anybody else, . . . [are] Insufferable and likeable. Bad and good.’” They might have a bad sheep, sibling rivalry, buried resentments, and hidden secrets, but what family doesn’t?
This is certainly not a novel of plot. It is, however, a wonderful portrait of a family, a family which in its ordinariness is like most families. And perhaps that is what makes them so special and this book special as well.