Anne Tyler's new novel may at first seem unpromising, especially to readers who felt that her previous book, Noah's Compass, was an underwhelming echo of earlier and better work on similar themes. The Beginner's Goodbye is certainly reminiscent of other novels by Tyler. Aaron Woolcott, the awkward male protagonist whose life is changed by a terrible twist of fate, brings to mind Liam Pennywell (Noah's Compass) and Macon Leary (The Accidental Tourist); Aaron's involvement in a series of how-to books that are essentially upmarket versions of the "For Dummies" series recalls Macon's travel guides for travel haters. Even the title, and certain aspects of the theme, echo 2004's The Amateur Marriage. But such comparisons are only worth so much; in a career of nineteen novels over nearly fifty years, there are bound to be points of similarity. The Beginner's Goodbye may not break much new ground, but for those who admire Tyler's gently comic portraits of human eccentricity, it's a quick, enjoyable meditation on things left unsaid and the nature of an unusual relationship.
Mildly disabled and surrounded by a mother, a sister, and a female coworker who wanted to take care of him, Aaron was attracted to Dorothy in large part because she showed no interest in nurturing or coddling him. Their marriage is, if not brimming over with happiness, at least stable, until a tree falls into their house and kills her. Grief-stricken and barely able to function, Aaron moves back in with his sister at the old family home, and goes numbly through the business of putting his life back in order... until he begins to see Dorothy again. Will her appearances, whatever their source, give him a chance to move on and face the rest of his life?
Although Dorothy's return is the most striking element of the novel and is duly emphasized in the cover copy, it doesn't occur until about two-thirds of the way through; like much of Tyler's work, the book is defined not by the supernatural but by the natural, ordinary human foibles made more compelling by their tragic context. In theory, at least. The drawback of The Beginner's Goodbye is that Aaron's grief never feels as powerful as the novel wants it to seem; his reserved narration never conveys anguish, and nothing happens to make one feel he's having the particular trouble adjusting that the reader has been led to expect. It's not that grief has to be dramatic to be real, but that the basic process is not inherently as interesting as its significance and universality might lead one to believe, and that in the absence of deep emotional insight, descriptions of the familiar rituals of grief (the awkwardness of well-meaning friends, endless casseroles brought over by neighbors) often feel hollow. The reader still sympathizes with Aaron, but not thoroughly enough to make the novel unforgettable.
Nevertheless there is much to enjoy in The Beginner's Goodbye. The characterization is typically deft: traits and quirks recognizable from our everyday lives are combined in ways that make the protagonists resemble real human beings rather than quaint comic types, and Tyler's deep, wide-ranging sympathy is reserved enough that it feels genuinely humanistic, not cloying. Her eye for the type of mild comedy that emerges from quotidian social interactions enlivens the already brisk pace; Aaron and Dorothy's mutual oddness as revealed in flashbacks is endearing. And the quietly moving resolution reflects thoughtful consideration of the needs and uncertainties that run beneath an unconventional marriage like that of Aaron and Dorothy, the hard truths hidden by the amusing facade. It is those darknesses within lightness that make Anne Tyler's finest work powerful despite its sentimental qualities and its limitations in scope, and while The Beginner's Goodbye doesn't match her best fiction, it comes close enough to be more than worth the time it takes to read it.