Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

Baltimore Row Houses (via)
Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2001

It's about: "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person."
So begins Back When We Were Grownups, a novel about middle-aged professional hostess Rebecca Davitch.  Rebecca runs her late husband's family business: a historic Baltimore home that can be reserved for special events.  In the midst of continual celebration, Rebecca looks back on her life and wonders how she became the person she is.  She was an introverted, bookish college student when she fell suddenly in love and got married to an older man.  When and how did she become this bubbly matriarch?  Rebecca decides to rediscover her former, truer self.

I thought:  Anne Tyler is my mother-in-law Judy's favorite author.  I happen to be lucky in the mom-in-law department, for many reasons; not the least of which is a kindred love of books.  Hers are recommendations I trust, but until now I had avoided Anne Tyler.  Judy had told me all about Ms. Tyler's quirky yet realistic characters and her situational, character-based humor.  But she also told me that said characters tended to be people in their 40's, 50's, 60's.  I wasn't sure I'd be able to relate.  I wasn't sure I wanted to, now that I'm pushing thirty and clinging to what's left of my youth.

But I'm so glad I picked up Back When We Were Grownups.  Yes, this books has some age-related details that don't particularly speak to me yet.  But it also did what literature can do so well: it made me consider other people's lives in a way that I hadn't before.  What is it like for my mother, for Judy, for my grandmothers, to have to cheerily organize and corral a big family of ingrates?  What will it be like for me someday?  What is it like to barely recognize your own hands because they look so old?  What's it like to barely recognize your high school sweetheart, now an oldish looking man?

Rebecca spends most of her life wondering how to reconcile her young self with her old self, and I think that struggle is a pretty common one.  I know I've wondered the same things she does: where would my life be if I hadn't made that one huge decision?  Or that other one?  Or that other one?  I found myself growing more and more introspective as I read further into this book.  I even started having dreams about the person I was in college, the men I dated then, and the different forks in my (and everyone's) life.  It's unusual for a book to affect my thoughts so much.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!  

Reading Recommendations:  It's a quick read- lots of dialogue, just the right amount of detail in the descriptions, light humor, and easy-to-follow thoughts.  But it's deceptively deep, too.

Warnings: nothing I can remember

Favorite excerpts: "It was true that Rebecca had sometimes sensed some other quality, a glimmer of something like desperation, lying just beneath the surface of Joe's exuberance.  On occasion she had thought she detected a hollow note in his voice, a forced heartiness as he welcomed guests.  Or was it just that in any marriage, you end up knowing more than you should about the other person?  (The inner meaning of that sudden hitch to the shoulders, or that flicker in one temple.)  Once or twice, after a party, she had found him slumped in the darkened front parlor, staring into space.  "Joe?" she had asked.  "Aren't you coming to bed?" and he'd given his head a sharp shake and struggled to his feet.
She had felt at certain moments - but not always! not for long stretches!- that she was dragging him through an invisible swamp, and Joe was hanging back while she herself, to compensate, grew quicker and more energetic.  See how easy it is? We'll get through this in no time!"

What I'm reading nextA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini