The other day my mom texted me and asked, “Which Anne Tyler novel is the one about the strange family?” Easy, Mom–literally all of them. Tyler’s specialty is lovable eccentrics. In The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron Woolcott joins that list, although he’s not as memorable as some others.
Aaron works for a publishing firm owned by his family, and is married to a doctor, Dorothy. After they’ve been married about 8 years, Dorothy is killed by a tree falling through the roof into their sunroom. Shortly after, she begins to appear to him in various places.
Tyler’s books are always grounded in reality, so it’s clear that rather than a ghost, Dorothy appearing after death is just a figment of Aaron’s imagination, a way for him to deal with her sudden death and the unfinished business of their short marriage. It’s clear that Aaron misses Dorothy terribly and regrets the state of their relationship when she died (they had just gotten in a fight). He admits that they were probably unsuited for each other from the beginning, but as usual Tyler finds the details that make their marriage special and different from all the others. The real skill here, though, is how she writes about being one half of a couple, when the other half dies. This is something she has explored time and again in her writing, particularly since her own husband died of cancer, and it never fails to be affecting. Thanks to a childhood illness, Aaron does not have full use of his right arm and leg, but after Dorothy’s death this physical disability also becomes metaphorical–part of himself is lost, and he has to work harder to function at a basic level.
As always, an Anne Tyler book is a cozy trip that leads from disorganization to peaceful equilibrium for the characters. This one isn’t my favorite, mainly because it’s rather inconsequential. Aaron doesn’t have as rich an inner life as some of her other characters, and he’s just not very special. I enjoyed The Beginner’s Goodbye, but it’s not one of my favorites.