Recently, I came across an Anne Tyler novel that I realised I had never read.
I thought I had devoured everything she has ever written, always waiting with anticipation for her latest novel.
Thumbing through a few pages of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was to discover the joy of a novel new to me, even though Anne Tyler wrote it many years ago in 1982. It was, in fact, her 9th novel and she has now written 24.
In a preface to the edition I read, it was interesting to see the author reflect that she thinks it is her best novel. It’s the one, she claims, in which she really wrote everything she ever wanted to say. Her later books, according to her, are different stories, naturally, but effectively it was number 9 that nailed the kernel of what she wanted her novels to say.
And I have to agree.
Not that I haven’t loved everything she has ever written and have particular soft spots for Ladder of Years and The Accidental Tourist and…well, numerous others now I come to think of it.
But if I had read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant when it first came out over 40 years ago, I would have gained far less from it, failed to see its wisdom and the essential truths it contains.
In fact, it is quite extraordinary to me that Anne Tyler wrote it when she was only 40 or 41. For it is a novel that reads as if written with the hindsight and perspective of a much older woman. The observations on growing old, on family life and particularly on motherhood are so poignant and accurate.
Take, for example, what the protagonist, Pearl, says of her now adult children:
I’m worried if I come too close, they’ll say I’m overstepping. They’ll say I’m pushy, or…emotional, you know. But if I back off, they might think I don’t care. I really, honestly, believe I missed some rule that everyone else takes for granted; I must have been absent from school that day. There’s this narrow little dividing line I somehow never located.
It was funny, in her old age, to look back and see for how short a period her nest had NOT been empty. Relatively speaking, it was nothing – empty far longer than full, so much of herself had been invested in those children; who could believe how briefly they’d been with her.
I could go on.
But instead, I just encourage you to read or re-read this wonderful novel.
And it’s made me think about so many novels that reward us at different stages in our lives and are possibly worth re-reading for the increased understanding and perspective they may offer. A novel that might irritate or seem tedious and mawkish at the age of 29, for example, could read as profound and wise at 69.
Carol Shields’ novels are for me always worth re-reading. And Unless, so sadly her last novel before her untimely death, is so rich in meaning and inference. This is the sort of novel that I find myself opening at a random page and becoming instantly absorbed – I love all her work, her use of language, the poignancy of her observations and Unless satisfies all these aspects:
I think I have re-read all of Anita Brookner’s novels – and some more than once. The same goes for Jane Gardam, another author I much admire.
And then there’s Penelope Lively. I find myself re-reading her novels as both writer and reader. She is so economical – just how does she write such compelling and convincing stories and characters in novels rarely longer than 250 pages or so?
One of my favourites is Perfect Happiness. The characters are so entirely real – their emotions captured with such precision. And line after line speaks with such truth as Frances, recently widowed thinks:
Happiness, of course, is forever bound to place, to the physical world. We are never happy now, only then. ….Unhappiness, now so intimately known, is a very different matter. Unhappiness is now, not then at all. Unhappiness is like being in love: it occupies every moment of every day. It will not be put aside and like love it isolates; grief is never contagious.
Then there’s Morris, thinking of Frances with whom he has fallen in love:
I don’t think that she will ever marry me or come to live with me … but I may be wrong. I do not know. We none of us know. It is not knowing that makes it all endurable.
For me, the mark of a great writer is the ability to write such truths with such brevity and simplicity.
People often say that there are too many unread books out there to bother reading anything twice. Let alone three or four times which I have been known to do. (Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, Emma, Great Expectations to name just a handful – in addition to the aforementioned titles and writers above!)
But no-one suggests that a piece of music – a symphony, concerto or whatever – should be heard only once. No-one would consider that a painting should only be looked at on a single occasions. We revisit plays, ballets, musicals as the norm.
So why not novels?
Perhaps not whodunnit kinds of novels as there wouldn’t be much point once – well, once you know whodunnit.
But character-driven novels that explore the complexities of relationships and personalities, examine the truths of human existence?
As the years go by in our own lives and the vicissitudes of fortune and chance visit us, our responses to certain novels change. Evolve.
Our understanding shifts.
So will our appreciation of some much loved authors and their wonderful stories.