“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”
I don’t think I could start this post with anything better than the opening sentence Anne Tyler chose for her novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye. Occasionally an opening comes to me fully formed and never needs changing, but more often, I find openings the hardest part any story. Tyler’s sentence is perfect. It lets us know the narrator is a bereaved husband and also gives us an indication of his state of mind – most people would not consider the strangest thing about someone’s return from the dead to be other people’s reactions. I had to read on after this, wanting to know whether this return from the dead was the imagination of a deranged mind or if I could trust this narrator that his wife really is there.
I loved The Beginner’s Goodbye, both because I enjoyed the story and because I really enjoyed noticing and learning from Tyler’s expertise as a writer. As you read this book, or any of her books, you aren’t aware of being hit by the words of a poetic genius. Instead, Tyler’s prose has a natural flow to it, and you are immersed in the story, drawn not just into characters’ lives but into their minds.
The mind we are drawn into in The Beginner’s Goodbye belongs to Aaron Woolcott, part-owner and editor of Woolcott press. Aaron is distraught with grief following the death of his wife after an accident. Everyone around him tries to help – and “help” comes in various forms, including acquaintances phoning up with invitations to visit homes he’s never before seen; it also materialises casseroles, salads and cheesecakes left on his doorstep. Since there is far more food than he could ever eat, Aaron records each item in a notepad so that he can thank the sender appropriately and then dumps them in the garbage. This wasted food symbolises the discrepancy between what people think Aaron needs and what he actually needs. It is also reveals an aspect of Aaron’s character – how he dislikes fussing, and rejects people’s care.
The Beginner’s Goodbye is a character driven novel, rather than a plot-driven one and Aaron’s dislike of fussing drives much of the book’s conflict. When his own house becomes uninhabitable he goes to live with his sister, Nandina, until it is repaired. She quizzes him on what he’s eaten, worries about his clothes and fusses about his home renovations when he doesn’t go near the house.
This dislike of fussing is also partly what attracted Aaron to his wife, Dorothy, since she: “left for her office early, stayed late, didn’t greet me with my slippers in the evening, barely knew how to boil an egg. Fine with me.”
Perhaps because I also have an aversion to fussing, I could easily empathise with Aaron, though the novel progresses we begin to see that perhaps he takes this aversion too far – and it is his understanding of this that leads to the book’s resolution.
The narrative flits about in time, with Aaron telling anecdotes in a way that gives the sense of someone talking to you. In less expert hands than Tyler’s this broken timeline could become confusing, but she makes it seem both natural and easy to follow. I’m working on the first draft of my third novel at the moment, and after reading this book I realised that I have a lot of work still to do in weaving in the back story. I’ve cut large chunks out completely and if I can do meld in the rest even half as seamlessly as Tyler does I will be satisfied!