by Anne Tyler; Knopf, 2012; 198 pages; $24.95
If there’s an appropriate way to read this beautiful new novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler, it is surely on a quiet weekend morning that stretches into an expansive, lazy afternoon. “The Beginner’s Goodbye” is a small book, barely 200 pages, but it needs to be read unrushed. Tyler has the uncanny ability to understand human shortcomings and to approach them with a commendable generosity of spirit that must be savored.
As in “Noah’s Compass,” her last novel, Tyler’s focus is on a man who is having trouble finding his way. This time out, it is Aaron Woolcott, a 36-year-old widower. Aaron stammers whenever he tries to make himself known. Owing to a childhood accident, he is also crippled in his right arm and leg and finds himself defensively overcompensating for that weakness as well.
He meets Dorothy Rosales, an outspoken and practical physician, when he is 24. She is eight years his senior and, unlike friends and family, immediately refuses to coddle him. They quickly marry, and it is a match made in heaven.
Some years later, a freak home accident causes Dorothy’s death right after a silly argument. The devastated Aaron retreats to his family business — a vanity press that has also enjoyed a modicum of success with its “Beginner’s” series, “something on the order of the Dummies books, but without the cheerleader tone of voice — more dignified.” Aaron also finds himself fleeing the multitude of small pressures of his damaged house and moving back to the house he grew up in, a house still occupied by his sister, Nandina.
Aaron feels that without his admittedly ordinary marriage, he simply doesn’t exist. Very movingly he remarks about life in general: “That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.” Then, from the afterlife, Dorothy begins to appear to Aaron at unexpected times to talk him through his grief.
What “The Beginner’s Goodbye” charts so very tenderly is Aaron’s beginning again. It isn’t easy at all. People are too kind with casseroles and condolences. Husbands avoid mentioning their wives; wives stop by to “see” if he is “all right.” Through all of this, Aaron comes to understand how ill-prepared any of us will be for starting over. With the subtle help of Gil Bryan, the contractor who rebuilds the damaged house, Aaron finds a way to do the same for his life.
With quiet wisdom and unassuming humor, Anne Tyler’s small book examines large truths. “The Beginner’s Goodbye” reminds us of the need to cherish even that which is unremarkable around us, to treasure even the imperfections of those we love: “The smart thing to do is, pay attention while they’re living.”
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.