Monday, February 25, 2013

the last book I read

Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler.

Pearl Tull is dying. But do her family flock to her bedside? Well, in general, no, or at least not immediately. Son Cody and daughter Jenny have their own lives, families and problems and aren't dropping everything to rush over, and husband Beck left many years ago while the kids were small and never showed his face again. Pearl does have her younger son Ezra, who runs a restaurant in their home town of Baltimore, but that's largely because he lives with her, so he hasn't got much choice.

Perhaps the rest of the family have decided that Pearl is unlikely to cark it before there's been an opportunity for an extended series of flashbacks to various key moments from family history, and so it proves. We learn a bit about Pearl's early life, her brief marriage to Beck, the circumstances of his departure, and various incidents from the kids' formative years intended to illustrate their differing personalities, the short version of which is: Cody always thought that Ezra was his mother's favourite (and so he was), and this bred a simmering resentment over the years which culminated in Cody mounting a deliberate (and ultimately successful) campaign to steal Ezra's fiancee Ruth from him and marry her himself.

So as we haul ourselves back toward the nominal "present" of the book's timeline, we find Cody and Ruth and their teenage son Luke moving around the country following Cody's job, during the course of which he's been temporarily immobilised following an industrial accident. This makes him even more irascible than usual, and Luke decides to escape by hitch-hiking his way to Baltimore and Ezra's restaurant. Meanwhile Jenny is on her third marriage, this one to a jolly beardy type with six kids of his own (to add to her teenage daughter). Ezra has moved on from working for Mrs. Scarlatti at her restaurant to owning and running it after her death (so it's The Scarlatti Inheritance, hahaha) as well as changing the name from Scarlatti's to The Homesick Restaurant. There's a running joke about how over the years he's attempted to organise several family reunion meals at the restaurant but all of them have ended in disaster and in people storming out early for one reason or another.

So, anyway, Pearl eventually dies and the family gathers in Baltimore for the funeral and the obligatory meal at the restaurant. They are unexpectedly joined by their absent father Beck Tull, who shows up and re-introduces himself at the funeral, and is invited along for the meal. Maybe this will be the one where the whole family (Pearl aside, obviously) will stick around until the end?

It's odd reading this straight after Infinite Jest, the two being polar opposites in many ways - Infinite Jest all flamboyant metafictionalism and archness and verbosity, this (like all Tyler's work) all restraint and apparent narrowness of scope and ambition. I say "apparent" because there's a bit more depth and subtlety here than it at first appears, and in any case as I said in this previous Tyler review making this all seem effortless takes more, well, effort than you might think.

I've read a couple of articles which say that this is Tyler's favourite of her own books - my personal view is that I didn't enjoy it quite as much as A Patchwork Planet, partly because the central characters (i.e. the Tulls) are less interesting than A Patchwork Planet's central character, and partly because even less actually happens, outside of flashbacks anyway, which I deem not to count since that stuff has already happened by the time the novel starts (I realise this is a highly dubious and probably meaningless distinction). I do also think that Tyler is one of those novelists where (unless you're particularly obsessive) you probably don't need to read the whole oeuvre, because the level of variation is fairly low. None of which is intended as criticism, particularly, as I enjoyed it; it's hard not to enjoy an Anne Tyler novel. My slight chafing for something unexpected to happen or for someone to suddenly say FUCK is probably just the residual effects of reading Infinite Jest immediately beforehand.

Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 (Alice Walker's The Color Purple won it that year). Tyler was nominated again for The Accidental Tourist in 1986 - one of her most famous books, largely owing to the 1988 film adaptation - before eventually winning with Breathing Lessons in 1989.

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