Sunday, January 15, 2006

Top 10 Anne Tyler Novels

Since I've been writing historical fiction lately, I've been reading a lot of it too, but my favorite living novelist is not a historical novelist, but Anne Tyler. Here (1 being the best) are my favorite novels by her:

1. Saint Maybe. When a careless remark by high school student Ian leads to the deaths of his brother and his sister-in-law, he turns to religion to deal with his guilt. This, and his penance of taking over the rearing of the couple's children, alienates him from his old friends. This could have been a gloomy book in some authors' hands (picture it in those of Joyce Carol Oates!), but Tyler makes this story poignant and often hilarious, without ever mocking Ian's genuine religious faith.

2. Breathing Lessons. Extroverted, impulsive Maggie and introverted, rigid Ira, married for decades, drive to a friend's funeral. On the way home, Maggie takes the opportunity to visit her son's ex-wife and decides, against all reason and probability, to reconcile the couple. The novel flashes back to Maggie and Ira's courtship, their son's marriage, and the breakup of the son's marriage. It's funny, poignant (one has to use this word a lot with Tyler), and sometimes heartbreaking.

3. A Patchwork Planet. Ex-delinquent Barnaby, from a wealthy, philanthropic Baltimore family, is a trusted employee of a business that does errands for the old or incapacitated, but his family hasn't made it easy for him to put the past behind him, and his prim new girlfriend complicates matters.

4.Ladder of Years. Mourning her elderly father's death, attracted by a younger man, and feeling unappreciated by her family and irritated with her husband, Delia disappears during a family vacation and starts life anew in a small town. But her job as a housekeeper to a handsome high school principal entangles her in the problems of another family, while her own won't let her go that easily.

5. Back When We Were Grownups. A middle-aged widow tries to reconnect with her younger, more serious, studious self.

6. Morgan's Passing. Married to a wealthy wife, middle-aged Morgan has little to do but hold a busy-work job in one of her family's stores, so he passes the time assuming other identities. Along the way, he meets a young couple, Emily and Leon, whose baby he delivers and whose spare lifestyle entrances him. Then he falls in love with Emily.

7.Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Pearl's husband goes off on a sales trip and never returns, leaving angry Pearl to rear the couple's three children, who cope with their father's absence and their mother's sometimes erratic behavior in entirely different ways. This is darker than many Tyler novels--Pearl's behavior borders on child abuse--but it's an ultimately hopeful one, with characters who can learn from the past rather than being enslaved by it.

8.The Accidental Tourist. Probably the best known of Tyler's novels because of its movie adaptation. When the murder of his son destroys his marriage, Macon finds solace in Muriel, a much younger woman who takes both him and his Welsh corgi in hand.

9.The Amateur Marriage. Tyler's latest novel (the next is forthcoming this spring). Though this is not Tyler at her best--I never connected very well with the main characters, one of whom Tyler takes the strange step of killing offstage--it's still worth reading, especially for the opening scenes in World-War-II-era Baltimore. Tyler has the endearing habit of sometimes recycling characters from one novel to another, and Gina Meredith, a sulky adolescent in Morgan's Passing, turns up as a bossy spouse in this one.

10.A Slipping-Down Life. In general, I don't care for Tyler's earliest novels, which tend toward the Southern Eccentric tradition of novel-writing and can get cloying. This, however, is one of the better ones. In a small town in 1960's North Carolina, overweight Evie, a shy high-school student, develops a crush on a small-time rock musician and ends up as his wife after carving his initials on her forehead to gain his attention. This was recently made into a movie, where for reasons best known to Hollywood, teenage Evie was turned into a woman in her thirties.


Jacques Bouchard said...

Maybe you could help me -- I'm trying to locate a specific passage from an Anne Tyler novel. In the passage, an old man is looking at a picture of himself and his wife when they were younger. He sees them both smiling into the camera, and he wonders why wasn't I looking at her? I could have been looking at her instead of wasting that moment looking into the camera.

If you remember it, I'd absolutely love your help in locating that passage.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Sorry for the long delay in publishing this comment. I have migrated over to WordPress, so I don't check this blog very often. I do faintly remember the passage, but I can't remember which novel it's in. Maybe in "Back When We Were Grownups"? There is that old widower in the novel who talks about his wife a lot.