Book Review: Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grown Ups

Back When We Were Grown UpsBack When We Were Grown Ups by Anne Tyler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve read a few Anne Tyler novels, way back when, and obviously liked them enough to keep returning to them. She creates memorable, fully-dimensional characters and writes with wry observation of modern life and a hopefulness, a key theme about learning to accept the life that we are given. As a young man, and I think I read all of her novels in my early, perhaps mid-twenties, I think I would have found this appealing, that we age and whatever complicated circumstances or tragedies that we undergo, we find ways to keep breathing.

But I’m not sure whether this book was somewhat weak, or whether I’ve grown out of Anne Tyler. Rebecca, a 53-year old grandmother and party-planner, has somewhat of a minor crisis, though not one that anyone in her family notices. She wonders what happened to the girl she was, and what would have happened if she had married her college fiancé rather than the man she left him for, inheriting a ready-made family of three step-daughters to which she added a daughter of her own. Not much happens in the book. She visits her mother. She goes to a special day at her step-grandson’s school. She organises her uncle’s 100th birthday party. Through the story, we learn the details of her life. The largest narrative arc is her getting back in touch with her old boyfriend, and then their subsequent meetings.

However, there is a likeability problem. Rebecca doubts herself constantly. She fusses and frets. Sometimes a sharper humour emerges, but she’s generally a martyr, playing a role, and helping everyone around her. Her daughters, and their various husbands and children, circle around. The daughters are quirky, but after the first character descriptions, the jokes don’t deepen (Biddy, the caterer, makes inedible food that is too fancy for anyone’s taste). And they’re vile. They bicker with each other, at their step-mother, and say insensitive things. Her uncle is more amusing and sweet, as is her brother-in-law, Zeb, who shows some caring for her. But she’s mostly unappreciated, unacknowledged and barely listened to. And there’s no character development for any of the supporting characters, and though this is Rebecca’s story, it’s not particularly interesting to be surrounded by this huge cast of unhappy and unpleasant people.

The writing is strong, and occasional wise observations allowed me to finish the novel; but otherwise, it’s not one I’ll be recommending. I did have a quick look at another review: John Leonard writing in the New York Times (…) is obviously a fan, and he reminds me of the reasons I probably liked the other books of Tyler that I’ve read — and yet, he recounts six of her novels with basically the same plots or endings to this one. So, perhaps my problem with the book was that I’d read it before.

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