I had never heard of Anne Tyler, until she was mentioned on Episode 14 of ‘The Readers’ podcast, since she has a new book coming out in 2012. A couple of days after listening to the podcast I found two of her novels in a second-hand bookstore. One of them I immediately started reading, and finished in three days. I thought ‘Back When We Were Grownups’ (BWWWG, for short) was great. And now I am very happy that I have a copy of Anne Tyler’s ‘Breathing Lessons’ to look forward to.
Main character of BWWWG is Rebecca Holmes Davitch. Aged 53, Rebecca finds herself the upbeat, outgoing centre of an extended family that contains three stepdaughters, a daughter, (who all have partners and children), a brother-in law and a soon-to-be 100-years-old uncle-in-law Poppy. Her husband died a long time ago and Rebecca suddenly starts to wonder what happened to the shy, bookish 19-year-old she once was. Can it be that she somewhere took a wrong turn and lost her true self? Has she been playing a part without being aware of it all these years? What follows is Rebecca’s examination of her current and past life. She attempts to reconnect with the girl who dropped out of college to marry a much older man with three young daughters. She tries to find out if it is possible to go back to her old self and carry on where she left off.
I fear I am not making this sound very appealing, but you really have to believe me when I say that this is great reading! The characters are so alive, it is sometimes very funny, no melodrama whatsoever and it makes you think about life.
Rebecca gets in touch with her high school boyfriend Will Allenby, to whom she says
it seems to me that I’ve been travelling in reverse. I know less now than I did when I was in high school. I’m trying to remedy that. I hope it’s not too late.
Rebecca refers to the fact that after dropping out of college, she dedicated her life to her husband, children and the family business, whereas Will has gone on to do a doctorate in physics and has become head of the department at their old college. But I found that Rebecca is being too hard on herself. Clearly, she has learnt much more about life than Will Allenby, whose social skills are still as rudimentary as they were when they were 19.
In the end, unle-in-law Poppy, on his 100th birthday, answered the book’s central question for me
‘Look,’ I said. ‘Face it,’ I said. ‘There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you’ve got,’ I said.”
I highly recommend this novel.