"What if?" is a question that looms large in the world of Anne Tyler --- in fact, for better or worse, it is the defining question of her oeuvre. What if I risk it all for romance, what if I carve someone's name into my forehead, what if I just leave my house and walk away into another life... The "What if" of BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS, her latest book, is completed by "I realized that I was living the wrong life." Serious business this, what we have done with our lives, the choices made, the choices not made... And Tyler, who can make an everyday trip to the supermarket almost drown in epic amounts of importance and opportunity, offers much of the same here.
Not to say that Tyler's work is boring just because there are themes to which she returns time and again. It is absolutely the opposite --- imagine what the work of Woody Allen would be without the intellectual New York snob versus the everyday guy from Flatbush dichotomy that he has milked throughout his entire career. Tyler's ability to draw from the same well and create yet another huge family of insanely vivid characters (although with each book, the younger characters come out looking dumber and more self-obsessed than the elder characters) is never-ending, a depth of talent with which few novelists work today. Although her last book, A PATCHWORK PLANET, left a great deal to be desired in its not-so-loveable protagonist, BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS offers us the engaging Beck, a party planner in her 50s who lives to make others' lives happy and celebratory. She suddenly realizes that the life she is living bears little to no resemblance to the one she had always imagined living --- and thus sets out to right this wrong before it's too late.
When Beck takes her chances at getting it right later on down the road, Tyler has drawn the reader in with her brand of sharp, pointed and seemingly small details of life --- a woman without children who has Raggedy Anns scattered about her living room, the fancy hors d'oeuvres Beck's stepdaughter brings to a picnic where everybody just wants hamburgers --- and we are with Beck every step of the way, egging her on, hoping and wishing that she will get what she wants. BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS offers a stunningly heartfelt look at a kind of redemption that past generations were unable to enact without a great deal of guilt, the ability to switch horses in midstream and go backwards to the place where their original dreams had started to take shape, in the hope that they will be readily resurrected. It is a daring place for anyone but particularly so for one of Tyler's stay-at-home Baltimoreans, usually happy to just be and go on with life as it is. Beck risks, and we are all the better for it.
Turning the humdrum into a philosophical, emotionally twisted and complicated conundrum is Anne Tyler's specialty. It's what she won the Pulitzer Prize for, it's why her books are always on the bestseller lists. BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS is yet another step on the ladder to her enduring and endearing legacy as a truly American novelist.
Back When We Were Grownups