I have enormous respect for Anne Tyler, which is why I’ve struggled for several days with the following statement: “I’ve just read The Beginner’s Goodbye (Knopf Publishing Group, $25), and I’m sorry to report that it isn’t very good.” Is that even possible? Tyler, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for her novel Breathing Lessons, has been writing best-selling, award-winning fiction for almost five decades. She’s 70 now, and The Beginner’s Goodbye is her 19th novel. This isn’t a case of sophomore slump; Tyler is the undisputed and much-heralded Bard of Baltimore. So why don’t I like this novel better?
For one thing, it’s very short—a little over 200 pages—and the book just feels slight and insubstantial. It also feels tired. I’m no ageist (Leonard Cohen is 77, and he’s still getting the job done!), but it’s possible The Beginner’s Goodbye will resonate more with the AARP crowd than any other demographic.
The characters that populate this book are the same eccentrics Tyler has been writing about for years; she’s brilliant when detailing human foibles. Aaron Woolcott works for his family’s publishing house, along with his sister, Nandina. Woolcott Publishing is primarily a vanity press, printing manuscripts for anyone who wants to pay for their novel to be “published,” but they also specialize in a series of guide books aimed at beginners: guides to wine, colicky babies, dog training, cancer, etc.
Disabled since childhood, Aaron has a crippled arm and leg, in addition to a stammer. His wife, Dorothy, is a doctor, eight years older than Aaron. Very early in the book, Dorothy dies when an oak tree falls on the couple’s home, crushing her. It sounds like a spoiler, but it’s all right there in the opening line: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” What follows is a fairly pedestrian tale of grief, understanding and acceptance. After Dorothy’s death, Aaron moves back home with his sister while his house—and his life—are slowly rebuilt.
It’s worth noting that Tyler lost her husband, a child psychiatrist, in 1997; they’d been married 34 years. In recent interviews, Tyler has admitted the idea of this book, the return of a dead lover, has been on her mind for the last decade or so, though The Beginner’s Goodbye bears no resemblance to her own life.
I want to believe, as some reviewers have suggested, that The Beginner’s Goodbye is deceptively simple; slight in appearance but still weighty and satisfying. That’s not the experience I had. For readers who have lost a partner, this may well be a novel worthy of four or five stars; for the rest of us, I’m afraid it’s a ghost story that will not haunt you, that will not stay with you. ★★☆☆☆