I’ve racked my brain for a perfect one-word description for this book and the best I can come up with is this: pointless. It’s one of those books that is easy to read because it’s really well written. So clearly Anne Tyler knows how to write but given the complete absence of plot, I don’t think she knows what to write.
Back When We Were Grownups is narrated by Rebecca, a middle-aged woman trapped in her own life. Married at twenty after abandoning her high school/college sweetheart fora much older man who mesmerises her during a two-week courtship, she becomes an instant stepmother to three daughters, gives birth at twenty-one to a biological daughter and then is widowed at twenty-six when her husband dies in a car accident.
It’s thirty years since all that happened. Now she’s a step-grandmother and grandmother many times over and she runs the family business hosting parties in the grand old family home while looking after her ninety-nine-year-old uncle-in-law. She is taken for granted a lot, has been for a long time and after dreaming of herself on a train with the son she never had, she starts to wonder how her life would have been different had she married her high school/college sweetheart instead. So she looks him up. And since this isn’t a Harlequin Mills & Boon, we can tell – I think even Rebecca can tell – that it isn’t going to have a “they lived happily ever after” ending.
There isn’t a single drop of passion in any part of Rebecca’s life and that likely has a lot to do with the fact that she made one rash choice and everything that has happened to her since has happened because of it without any further choices required. She runs the family business because no one else will. She looks after an elderly relative because no one else does. She keeps the family together because it would fall apart without her. She’s bubbly and positive and it’s all a façade. And it should have been someone else’s life. (Her husband’s first wife abandoned the family to remarry multiple times and live a glamourous life in London.)
I suppose Rebecca’s musings are something we all go through. How would our lives have been different had we taken a different path? But thankfully we don’t torture a vast reading audience with those musings. This book felt like a writing exercise, a character study. However, none of the characters were likeable or memorable, they all had strange names that should have made it easy to keep track of them but they still got all muddled up (especially the four daughters nicknamed Biddy, Patch, NoNo and Min Foo). And the banality of their lives, while realistic, didn’t warrant an entire novel. After all, if we want banality, we’ve got our own lives for that.
Rebecca (and maybe the author herself as well) is from a generation for which the choice was this man or that man. Not once does she stop to think that perhaps her choice should have been neither man. The potential for this novel to have had some genuine feeling and meaning had that alternative been explored seems a lot greater.
Anne Tyler’s writing genre is described as literary realism and there is always the possibility when writing “realistically” of falling into the trap of writing about boring topics, everyday topics and failing to imbue them with importance. Because reality is almost never boring. Parts of it are – blowing your nose, peeing, dusting the house, the commute to work, those times when you want to watch television but there’s nothing on that captures your attention. The thing about writing, all writing, is that we should leave these moments out so that readers aren’t struck by the impulse to poke the own eyes out. But a lot of literary realists leave them in to the detriment of their stories, their writing and their readers.
As always, I come back to the big three components in writing: characters, plot and the writing itself. This book only gets one thing right – the writing – but it isn’t good enough to make up for the lack of interesting characters and good plot. And despite Anne Tyler being Nick Hornby’s “favourite writer” and being described by Lynne Truss as “a brilliant writer of emotionally sophisticated novels”, I’m not convinced. I’m not anywhere close to being convinced of those things based on this effort. And perhaps it’s a shame that I doubt I’ll ever be inclined to read another Anne Tyler book.
*First published on Goodreads 26 February 2017