Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Frolic and a Detour

Though this blog was intended to deal mainly with historical fiction, I've got to make an exception when a new Anne Tyler novel comes out. Yesterday, her newest, Digging to America, appeared in bookstores, and I duly grabbed a copy and read it within a day.

I'm not sure how familiar readers outside the USA are with Tyler. Suffice it to say that her novels fall into that vast category known as "mainstream fiction." Her books, though beautifully written, aren't full of the stylistic tricks and angst that would put them in "literary fiction," as I see it at least.

Digging to America tells of two couples, Brad and Bitsy, who would be called a white-bread American couple except that Bitsy would not dream of eating white bread, and Sami and Ziba, an Iranian-American couple, who meet in 1997 at the airport where both couples are picking up adopted baby girls from Korea. The couples, or at least the wives, become good friends, and they and their large extended families get together over the ensuing years to celebrate the anniversary of their daughters' arrival as well as other sundry events. Eventually, Bitsy's slightly eccentric, newly widowed father takes a romantic interest in Sami's reserved, long-widowed mother, and the little plot there is grows out of this.

With Tyler's novels, however, one doesn't read for the plot so much as for the characterizations and Tyler's wonderful eye for detail, and this novel displays these talents amply. As with so many of Tyler's novels, the point of view shifts from chapter to chapter, and Tyler draws male characters as deftly as female ones, aging characters as deftly as young children. Indeed, my favorite chapter, devoted to a party Bitsy hosts to break her second adopted daughter of her pacifier habit, is told from the point of view of the older adopted daughter, young Jin-Ho.

Unfortunately, however, I can't put this up at the top of the list of my favorite Anne Tyler novels. Pondering it, I think it's because although I found the unlikely romance between Dave and Maryam to be engrossing, it doesn't develop until relatively late in the novel, by which time we've developed an interest in the other characters as well, especially Sami and Bitsy, who have each been given a turn as the focus for a chapter. They get overshadowed when the romance takes center stage, and I felt a little cheated when the spotlight moved off them. Perhaps the novel would have been more effective if it had stuck to the points of view of Dave and Maryam, or if it had taken the story of the families' relations to each other a little further in time (this would have added pages, of course, but I've no objection to a longer Tyler novel).

Buy this one? Sure--but if you want Tyler at her best, try the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, perhaps, or my personal favorite, Saint Maybe.

Now that I've got my Tyler fix, I'm reading Reay Tannahill's novel about Richard III, The Seventh Son, and will be blogging about it in due course.

3 comments:

Marg said...

I'll be interested to hear what you think of The Seventh Son!

Sarah said...

What did you think of Amateur Marriage? I read the first couple chapters but had to give it away... never did get back to it, but I intend to at some point.

I'll save any comments on Seventh Son until later!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Almost finished The Seventh Son.

I liked The Amateur Marriage, but not as much as Tyler's previous novels. It's enjoyable to read, especially the early chapters set in the 1940's, but I didn't feel the same liking toward the characters here as I did in other Tyler novels, and the events were spread out over such a long period of time--60 years--that the novel as a whole didn't hang together all that well for me. Still worth a read, though.