Madeleines From Reading Back When We Were Grownups By Anne Tyler

The Timing

Three years after Julie died,1 I read Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler.

While it would be too much to say that it changed my life or even that it triggered a change, it certainly illuminated the process.

It’s Not The First Line

We may as well get this out of the way. The bit of information most commonly known about Back When We Were Grownups is that its initial sentence was chosen as one of The 100 Best First Lines From Novels. It is, in fact, a fine and dandy first line. Well, see for yourselves:

Once upon a time, there was a woman
who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.

It’s evocative, it’s intriguing, it invokes the magical intimacy of fairy tales, it bespeaks tragedy without histrionics, … all in all, there is not a darn thing wrong with that first line.

It’s just not my focus for this post. Or, more accurately, it is only a bar or two of the novel’s symphony that I want to address.

Anne Tyler: What’s Up With Her?

I want to like Anne Tyler’s books. She exhibits expertise in her writing, she manages difficult literary tasks such as time shifts elegantly, and she has a knack for the pithy phrase, such as the opening line of Back When We Were Grownups, to which I’ve already alluded.

And I do like her books – sorta, kinda, mostly, sometimes.

Except when I don’t.

For example, I anticipated Tyler’s Amateur Marriage, which should be on the list of 100 Best Titles Of Novels, with some excitement and indeed managed to plow through it, but if there was a message or a point, I somehow missed it as I tracked its aimless peregrinations through, as far as I could determine, randomly chosen events from a 20 year marriage, its termination in divorce, and the aftermath. After I finished this volume, I had the uncomfortably familiar feeling of having previously endured this onslaught of jumbled fragments of a marriage gone bad. I finally realized that, if one subtracted the Ozarks dialect and the annotations of morality from the gossip sessions to which I was all too often subjected by some of my older relatives, the remainder could easily have been crafted into a recognizable representative of the Amateur Marriage genre, including the epigrams, funny anecdotes, and funny names.2

My recurrent problem with Tyler’s work is that I only rarely feel connected with her characters, not because they are unrealistic but because they are, in a word, dull. On reconsideration, I will amend that to two words, her characters tend to be (1) “dull” and (2) “whiney.” They are dull despite possessing multiple eccentricities, which is quite an auctorial trick. A friend of mine, kinder than I am and more willing to go beyond halfway to create a relationship with a novel’s characters, wrote me, “I inevitably like the first half of her [Tyler’s] books and identify mightily with her characters. I get my hopes up. Then by the end, I kinda wanna sue for disappointment.”

I do get the joke; these folks are dull and whiney in the service of the novels’ theme of debunking the Norman Rockwell image midwestern suburbanites hold of themselves. Still, would a character who manages to break from his or her psychological rut in a manner that results in rather more happiness than despondency be catastrophic to the cause? But, that’s just midwestern quibbling on my part.

So, Why Write About Back When We Were Grownups If It’s Dull And Whiney?

Back When We Were Grownups, more than Tyler’s other novels, resonated with me.

The book deals with the processes, certainly uncontrollable and seemingly random, that change what we do and who we become. (I personally hold that these processes are far too strategically malignant to be random, but that’s the kind of hopeless romantic I am.)

For example, Rebecca, the woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person, becomes responsible for the day-to-day care of not only her own daughter and three step daughters, but also the children of her own daughter who habitually marries and then leaves a series of husbands after having given birth to a child and, most glaringly, her 99 year old uncle-in-law (Poppy), who has survived her husband’s (his nephew’s) demise by 20+ years. In addition to being the unpaid caretaker for a man who is of no blood relation and for whom she never had any affection, she also takes over her husband’s role as coordinator of The Open Arms, a venue for banquets and private parties. She is, in fact, expected to and does behave as a perky, gregarious, energetic organizer of parties, weddings, picnics, and such, both those affairs that are part of the business and for the large, extended family of her late husband although she is, by nature, an introspective soul who avoids if not abhors participation in social activities, parlor games, and ice-breakers.

In the midst of hosting an engagement party, she precipitously comes to terms with the central question of her life: “How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who’s not really me?”

Along about here is were I began having problems. I realize now that I envisioned an ending significantly different from the actual denouement, which, by the way, is clearly signaled by the end of the 2nd chapter. The protagonist isn’t able to make a consciously chosen change in her life. The entire point is that she is who she is, or, as the aged Poppy puts it on his 100th birthday, “There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be.” Although she attempts to resurrect an old romantic relationship, considers returning to early aspirations for academic research, and ponders other alternatives which would necessitate abdication of her role as matriarch by default, she proves unable to effect a consciously chosen change in her life.

It is telling, I suppose, that I somehow insisted that the protagonist would – sooner or later – make a quietly heroic transition into a new and more perfect human being.

It required a year or two before I realized that Back When We Were Grownups documents Rebecca coming to grips with who she is with exactly that quiet bravery and fortitude I had demanded or, as one reviewer called it, Rebecca’s “radiant resignation.”

There was another conceit in the book that resonated with my own life. The 99 year old uncle-in-law, who was widowed scores of years previously, notes that people somehow think dealing with the loss of a loved one is a like dealing with quitting smoking – that every day is a little easier than the day before – when it is more like dealing with the loss of water – one thinks about it every moment of every day.

My reaction to the novel was painful. I agonized, reflecting on both how something similar seemed to have befallen me and, more poignantly, how I had responded by developing a whinging, bitter attitude toward that experience. I found it unavoidable to ignore the fact that this phenomenon is hardly unique to the world Anne Tyler created. In fact, even a superficial consideration of just those individuals whom I knew well inevitably forced me to conclude that, in all likelihood, most people lead these lives of this ilk. It may be that the lucky ones never have this thought crystallize in their minds and can remain oblivious to it. Far rarer are those who realize what is happening and address it, either accepting and integrating their fate or consciously raging against its inevitability and transforming themselves.

One result of all this was that, for the moment, I was, to resort to one of those testosterone-tainted sports metaphors, down for the count. I did manage to recover and demand a rematch (this already overextended metaphor breaks down once one begins working through the involvement of Don King and the Nevada Gaming Commission).

Inward-directed remonstrations aside, the thoughts engendered Back When We Were Grownups were not homogeneously horrid and this chain of thought perversely evoked a bit of hope that things could be different someday if I could pull together a little energy and courage.

And now I’m going to close before I break into “If I only had a heart, a mind, ….”

Note: Originally posted Oct 18, 2006 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

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  1. Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author.  Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ. []
  2. Actually, the names in Back When We Were Grownups, “Poppy,” “NoNo,” “Biddy,” and “Min Foo,” which were derided by some critics as an attempt at low comedy, would not have raised an eyebrow in the hills of Missouri and Arkansas. []

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