Sunday, April 5, 2015

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler
 I like Maeve Binchy because she sounds like Anne Tyler. I even like Ruth Rendell before she turns on the hypo horror, because she sounds like Anne Tyler.

There is a core of decency in Anne Tyler’s characters. They are credible, and the muted drama of their inner narrative is instantly recognizable, never mind that her stories are set in Baltimore while I read them sitting here in Singapore.

Anne Tyler puts a fictional family under the magnifying lens in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. What we get to see is tragedy - familial and personal - and perseverance – of people and their families. This is a universal theme, though probably poorly explored by writers who are mostly concerned with individual angst, endeavour or fortuity. The family is often shown as the circumstance around an individual. In this novel, we also get to see the converse.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the story of Pearl and her three children – Cody, Ezra and Jenny. The children’s father ups and leaves one day leaving Pearl to manage as best as she can. They turn out all right but not quite, like all of us I guess. The story is told from the perspectives of the main characters. Certainly, we know what they all think, either through a personal POV narrative or through some confessional piece of conversation. This easy comprehension of motivation and attitudes of family members is believable; Tyler’s style is very effective.

The descriptions are fantastically evocative – a big part of all our lives play out within the walls of our homes, yet until the advance of the blogging generation, literary produce very rarely concerned itself with the mundane details of home life. It either ran outdoors or delved deep into the individual psyche, leaving Anne Tyler to spark to life ‘the mild indoors.’ So we have ironed napkins stacked in a block, the conundrum of whether or not to wash a plastic doily, the act of a lady smoothing out fallen drops of water on her quilt after being helped to a few sips. We also have a mother who rages when she comes back from work to discover the dishes not done since morning and how the rage turns ugly. We see how this woman copes with her life and how the children have been scarred, even debilitated to an extent, but not damaged in a permanent way, certainly not destroyed. We see how the children resent their mother yet look out for her, save up to buy her presents, cannot bear to see her suffer. One has been granted a peek into others’ lives and I suppose the message is to teach us some empathy.

And thus the middle class family dynamic is mined for a study of the Human Condition.  As usual this book takes me to others – the setting of Jonathan Franzen’s “Corrections” is uncannily similar, while Paul Harding’s “Tinkers” looks to be the story of the missing father. Hmm, American settings both. In terms of a middle class family ‘saga’ I rate Kate Atkinson’s “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” better, for it also weaves in history. 

And my favorite Tyler is still “Saint Maybe.” 

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