You probably wouldn’t read Anne Tyler for the plots of her novels. It’s not that nothing happens at all, though it would be fair to say that nothing much tends to happen. In any case, the plot is not what makes her books special. So why would you read Anne Tyler? Characterisation, I’d say, it’s all about characterisation.
The Beginner’s Goodbye is a novel about love and loss, grief and also, eventually, hope. When Aaron, an intriguing character, who stammers and suffers from the effects of polio, loses his wife (and house) in a freak accident, he finds his life drained of purpose and meaning.
The story is told from his perspective, the perspective of quite an ordinary kind of guy. And this, for me, is what makes the book special. Tyler deftly avoids the trap that all too many writers have fallen into, of using their characters as mouthpieces for their philosophical reflections, reflections that can easily become too sophisticated for the characters that are made to think and share all those amazing insights. Aaron is not cast in that way. Yes, he does offer us his reflections on life, love, grief and lots of other things (how could he not after all that’s happened to him?), but there is an ordinariness about him that makes him utterly real and believable.
Tyler has once again excelled at characterisation and come up with yet another very gentle book, to mention another one of her trademarks. Here are some of the little gems that Aaron dispenses:
… I had first tried to do without her – to ‘get over’ my loss, ‘find closure,’ ‘move on,’ all those ridiculous phrases people use when they’re urging you to endure the unendurable.
‘Reading is the first to go,’ my mother used to say, meaning that it was a luxury the brain dispensed with under duress.
That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.
As it turns out, Aaron grieves the loss of a marriage that had been far from perfect. It doesn’t get much more real than that, does it?