Reading an Anne Tyler book is like snuggling into your warm bed when it’s raining and you have nowhere to be. There are no Big Bads, no scary, suspenseful moments, and no dramatic confrontations. Her books feel like a snapshot of the characters’ lives, which are mostly very ordinary. I adore them.
The Accidental Tourist is the story of Macon Leary, a middle-aged man who writes travel guides for businessmen (and since it was written in 1985, they are indeed guides for businessmen, not businesspeople). His son Ethan was recently killed in a horrific incident, and his marriage is unraveling. When his wife moves out, Macon starts to crack a little and eventually breaks his leg in an accident involving his out-of-control dog and an eccentric home invention. He moves in with his siblings (like most Tyler protagonists, he has a large and hilarious extended family) and hires a dog trainer, which is when things start to get interesting.
I’ve read The Accidental Tourist more times than I can remember, but it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly why I keep coming back. Macon is not one of my favorite main characters, and the story itself is pretty sad (other than Anne Tyler, I avoid sad books like the plague). Part of it is the comfort of reading about very ordinary people leading very ordinary lives that, to them, are so important. Part of it is how well-drawn the characters are–Macon has a rich inner life, and so does everyone he encounters. But I think the biggest reason is identifying with the things that Macon struggles with. How do we go on after something terrible has happened? Not just something terrible, but maybe the most terrible thing? How do you keep doing ordinary things like laundry, and paying bills, and even the most basic things like showering, eating, sleeping, when you can’t find a point to any of it? Tyler isn’t afraid to go there, and the story is more realistic for it.
For all that this is a pretty dark book that addresses some serious themes (the violent death of a child, divorce, poverty, depression), it’s also entertaining and funny. This balance is something I think Tyler does very well, and it highlights the absurdity of our lives. We can feel as though there’s absolutely no reason to go on, and then suddenly something small and beautiful happens. The crocuses are blooming, or you see a happy couple walking down the street, or someone unexpectedly helps you out of a small jam. Maybe it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else, maybe it wouldn’t even mean anything to us at another moment, but when it comes at the right time, it may save your life.