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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Anne Tyler (1941-)


American novelist and short-story writer, whose keen ear for dialogue and life-like characters have won critical acclaim. Several of Tyler's novels have been set in Baltimore and focus on middle-class families, their secrets, ambitions, dreams, and crises. Among Tyler's best-known books is The Accidental Tourist (1985), which was made into a successful film, and the Pulitzer Prize winner Breathing Lessons (1988).

"I mean you're given all these lessons for the unimportant things - piano-playing, typing. You're given years of lessons in how to do in normal life. But how about parenthood? Or marriage, either, come to think of it. Before you can drive a car you need a state-approved course of instruction, but driving a car is nothing, nothing, compared to living day in and day out with a husband and rising up a new human being." (from Breathing Lessons, 1988)

Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the daughter of Lloyd Parry Tyler, an industrial chemist, and Phyllis Mahon Tyler, a social worker. Before settling in Raleigh, North Carolina, the family lived among various Quaker communities in the rural south. These years formed background for Tyler's Southern literary flavor, which is seen in the settings of her fiction. Also the writer Eudora Welty, who has depicted the Mississippi of her childhood, has influenced Tyler.

The Tylers moved several times in their search for an ideal place to raise their children. In 1948, when Anne was six, the Tyler family found the Celo Community, near Burnsville, in the mountains of North Carolina. The community operated on a shared labor basis. At Celo the Tylers lived in their own house, raised some stock, and used organic farming techniques. The children in the settlemed received lessons in art, carpentry, and cooking. Anne attended also a small local public school at Harvard. According to a story, whenever the school's principal had to take a short leave to look after his cows, Anne was put in charge.

By the age of seven Anne had started to write stories. Most of these early pieces concerned "lucky, lucky girls who got to go west in covered wagons." Her favorite picture book was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. Later she has said that it showed her "how the world worked, how the years flowed by and people altered and nothing could ever stay the same." At the age of 19 Tyler graduated from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, where she twice won the Anne Flexner Award for creative writing. Her first published short story, 'Laura,' appeared in Duke University's literary magazine, the Archive. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa and did post-graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University.

Before settling in Baltimore, her home town for much of her adult life, Tyler was a bibliographer at Duke University, ordering books from the Soviet Union, and worked in the law library of McGill University, Montreal. While in Durham, she met the Iranian-born child psychiatrist and fiction writer Taghi Modarressi. When he asked her to marry him 1963, her response was  "Oh, well, why not?" They had two daughters. Taghi Modarressi died of lymphoma in 1997. His first novel appeared in Iran in 1953. When he resumed writing fiction in the 1980s, he translated his own novels from Persian to English.

As a writer Tyler made her debut with If Morning Ever Comes (1964), which she finished in Montreal, where she had moved with her husband. The protagonist is a young man, Ben Joe Hawkes, who returns from Columbia to North Carolina and attempts to find his own way under family expectations. He knows that his father had lived alternately with his wife and mistress and his grandmother married his grandfather although she was in love with another man. Finally Ben must decide how to continue with his ex-girlfriend. Katherine Gauss Jackson, reviewing the book for Harper's, was astonished: "How can a twenty-two-year-old girl know so much about how a man feels?"

In 1967 Tyler became a full-time writer. She won in 1977 an award from the American Academy for Earthly Possessions. Her novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) explores tensions inside a family – for Tyler it is the basic battlefield of all society. The events are seen from the perspective from each member in turn. Pearl Cody Tull's children have all their own view of her – she is violently abusive, suspicious, or nurturing. Absentminded Ezra, the youngest son, runs the restaurant of the title, where Pearl's husband and her children gather for dinner after her funeral.

The Accidental Tourist won in 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award and was made into a film in 1988, directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. The protagonist is Macon Leary, who writers travel guides for travel-hating businessmen. After his son, Ethan is murdered in a fast-food joint and his wife Sarah leaves him, Macon spends his time in planes, addicted to routine. "He approved planes. When the weather was calm, you couldn't even tell you were moving. You could pretend you were sitting safe at home. The view from the window was always the same – air and more air – and the interior of one plane was practically interchangeable with the interior of any other." Macon's routines are shattered when he meets Muriel Pritchett, a dog trainer and her young son. Macon moves in with Muriel, but Sarah wants him back. As is many Tyler's novels, the characters are hesitant to flee their present lives. In this story Tyler also reassures that what ever happens, life goes on. The Amateur Marriage (2003), Tyler's sixteenth novel, shows on the other hand, that domestic conflicts have the tendency to continue several generations. Michael Anton and Pauline Barclay marry during the early World War II years. The dissolving of their marriage takes decades.

In 1989 Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons, a story of a couple who have been married for 28 years. Maggie Moran is the eternal optimist, daring and enterprising. She is married to Ira, who plays solitaire, and the mother of Jesse, a dropout from high school, and Daisy. On a hot summer day Maggie and Ira drive to the funeral of the husband of Maggie's best friend. During their 90-mile trip, Tyler explores the problems of marriage, love and happiness. "She [Tyler] loves love stories, though she often inventories the woe and entropy of lovelessness. She likes a wedding and all the ways weddings can differ, loves to enumerate the idiosyncrasies of children's sensibilities and of house furnishings. Temperate though she is, she celebrates intemperance, zest and an appetite for whatever, just as long as families stay together. She wants her characters plausibly married and carring for each other." (Edward Hoagland in The New York Times, September 11, 1988)

In Saint Maybe (1991) Tyler dealt with the theme of guilt inside an unhappy middle-class family. After the death of his older brother Danny and his grief-stricken widow, Ian is tortured by self-accusations. He takes care for the orphaned children with his parents and becomes in the eyes of the youngest "King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe." Ladder of the Year (1996) is a story about a woman who leaves her marriage and family to discover who she is. A Patchwork Planet (1998) is about Barnaby Gaitlin, a former delinquent, incurable optimist, and divorced. His daughter Opal, with her suspicious, piercing questions, sounds like her mother. Barnaby helps old people through an organization called Rent-a-Back, but it is a mystery for him what makes some people more virtuous than others. "One of the high points of this narrative is a potluck Thanksgiving dinner at which no one has provided a turkey. There are two pumpkin chiffon pies, a marshmallow-yam casserole, and a cake made in Sophia’s Crock-Pot, and the difficulty is this: 'If a meal is mainly dessert, it’s hard to know when it’s over.'"(Hilary Mantel in The New York Review of Books, November 5, 1998) In Back When We Were Grownups (2001) a mother of a large family, Rebecca Davitch, discovers that "she had turned into the wrong person." Rebecca is a grandmother, "wide and soft and dimpled, with two short wings of dry, fair hair flaring almost horizontally from a center part." She doesn't believe that it is too late to make changes and tries to find her true self from her past.

Most of Tyler's novels have been set in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives. Her  city has little to with the Baltimore of The Wire, HBO's landmark TV series – there are no drug dealers, corrupt politicians, prostitutes, or police brutality.  One of the places where her characters live is Baltimore's Roland Park. This neighborhood is  the home of Macon Leary of The Accidental Tourist, Delia Grinstead from Ladder of Years, the Peck Family in Searching for Caleb, Muriel Pritchett from the Accidental Tourist, the Tull family in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Red and Abby Whitshank in A Spool of Blue Thread (2015). Rebecca Davitch in Back When We Were Grownuops resides in Charles Village. The opening scene of Ladder of Years takes place in Roland Park, an epitome of "upper-middle-class Waspdom in all its glory" (Gerson Nason in The Independent, 19 January 2003). Digging to America (2006) was a story of two families, the Iranian-born Yazdans and the Donaldsons, who are connected by adopted Korean girls. Tyler's 18th novel, Noah's Compass (2010), tells of a 60-year-old man who finds again his joy of living after losing his job and being attacked in his apartment. In 2011 Tyler became a nominee for the the prestigious Man Booker prize. The Beginner's Goodbye (2012) captures the attention of the reader with the sentence: "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted." The narrator, Aaron Woolcott, has lost his wife Dorothy in an accident, and tries to pull himself together and resume his life after the loss.

Against her nature of being predictable, in Clock Dance (2018) the heroine cuts herself from her old life. Once again, Tyler's main character is a decent, unpretentious person. Reviewing A Spool of Blue Thread James Walton said that "her essentially kindly approach is not some sort of regrettable disability that she can’t shake off. Instead, it’s a deliberate and defensible artistic choice about how best to express the reality of human life." (The Telegraph, February 7, 2015) 

"Every time I begin a book I think this one is going to be completely different, and then it isn't," Tyler has said. ('Anne Tyler interview: 'I had no intention of becoming a writer' by Charles Mcgrath, Independent, 6 July, 2018) After an initial draft written in longhand (with Pilot P500 gel pen), Tyler transfers the text to a computer for editing. She also reads aloud what she has written, looking for awkward parts. Tyler has no plans to retire. She has confessed in an interview that she eavesdrop a great deal in public places and makes mental notes on speech and the use of language. During non-writing periods, she keeps her house spotless, throws dinner parties, and enjoys visiting her friends and daughters and their families. Twice a year, she has a dinner with the cult film direct John Waters, a fellow Baltimorean. Waters has argued that Tyler "writes about people who think of themselves as normal, and are normal, but also eccentrics who don't know it."

For further reading: The Temporal Horizon by K. Linton (1989); Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler's Major Novels by J. Voelker (1989); The Fiction of Anne Tyler, ed. C.R. Stephens (1990); Understanding Anne Tyler by A.H. Petry (1990); Critical Essays on Anne Tyler, ed. A.H. Petry (1992); Anne Tyler by E. Evans (1993); Anne Tyler as Novelist, ed. D. Salwak (1994); Anne Tyler: A Bio-Bibliography by Robert W. Croft (1995); Anne Tyler by Paul Bail (1998); An Anne Tyler Companion by Robert W. Croft (1998); Anne Tyler: A Critical Companion by Paul Bail (1998); Loss and Decline in the Novels of Anne Tyler: The "Slipping-Down" Life by Susan S. Adams (2006); 'That's what she said: the everyman in recent suburban fiction by Anne Tyler, Gish Jen, and A.M. Homes' in American Unexceptionalism: The Everyman and the Suburban Novel after 9/11 by Kathy Knapp (2014)   

Selected works:

  • If Morning Ever Comes, 1964
  • The Tin Can Tree, 1965
  • A Slipping-Down Life, 1970
  • The Clock Winder, 1972
  • Celestial Navigation, 1974
  • Searching for Caleb, 1975
  • Earthly Possessions, 1977 - Pako (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1981) - Film 1999, dir. James Lapine, starring Susan Sarandon, Stephen Dorff
  • Morgan's Passing, 1980
  • Dinner at Homesick Restaurant, 1982 - Päivällinen Koti-ikävän ravintolassa (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1983)
  • The Best American Short Stories, 1983 (ed. with S. Ravenel)
  • The Accidental Tourist, 1985 (National Book Critics' Award) - Onnellinen matkamies (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1986) - Film 1988, dir. Lawrence Kasdan, starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis
  • Breathing Lessons, 1988 (Pulitzer Prize) - Hengitysharjoituksia (suom. Saara Villa, 1989)
  • Saint Maybe, 1991 - Pyhimys sattuman oikusta (suom. Raija Mattila, 1992)
  • Tumble Tower, 1993
  • Ladder of Years, 1996 - Elämän tikapuilla (suom. Kristiina Drews, 1995)
  • A Patchwork Planet, 1998 - Oikukas planeetta (suom. Kristiina Drews, 1999)
  • Back When We Were Grownups, 2001 - Aikaa sitten aikuisina (suom. Kristiina Drews, 2002)
  • The Amateur Marriage, 2003 - Avioliiton lyhyt oppimäärä (trans. by Kristiina Drews, 2004)
  • Digging to America, 2006 - Amerikan lapset (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2008)
  • Noah's Compass, 2010 - Nooan kompassi (suom. Jaana Kapari-Jatta, 2010)
  • The Beginner's Goodbye, 2012 - Jää hyvästi (suom. Jaana Kapari-Jatta, 2013)
  • A Spool of Blue Thread, 2015
  • Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold, 2016 (Hogarth Shakespeare Series) - Äkäpussi (suomentanut Tarja Lipponen, 2018)
  • Clock Dance, 2018
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road: A Novel, 2020
  • French Braid: A Novel, 2022
    - Palmikko (suom. Markku Päkkilä, 2023)

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