The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler

One doesn’t expect anything less from Anne Tyler than a beautifully-written, nuanced portrayal of everyday life, and The Beginner’s Goodbye does not disappoint. It’s the second book I’ve read this summer about grief and loss: in this case the story focuses on a husband whose wife has died suddenly as a result of a freak accident. Aaron, the main character, is a young man who due to some slight disabilities has always felt that the women in his family fussed over him and coddled him; he is drawn to the brisk, no-nonsense Dorothy because she’s not a fusser. Her sudden death leaves him devastated, yet as the story of their marriage unfolds in Aaron’s memories, it’s clear that it was by no means a perfect love match: in many ways, Aaron and Dorothy, though they genuinely cared for each other, didn’t know how to make each other happy.

It’s an interesting side of grief to explore — not just the overwhelming pain of loss, but the knowledge that, as is so often the case, the relationship with the person you lost was less than ideal, and now there’s no time to do better, to love more fully. The loss of that opportunity is an inextricable part of the loss itself, and Tyler has portrayed this beautifully in Aaron’s response to his unexpected widowerhood. Aaron begins seeing visions of Dorothy after her death — whether these are in any sense real or products of his own mind is question neither author nor character explore too deeply. What’s important here is not why or how Aaron meets Dorothy, but how he uses those meetings and how their post-death conversations help him to process what’s happened and move forward.

Anytime I do have reservations about an Anne Tyler novel, it generally has to do with whether I like the main character or not. In a book like Noah’s Compass, I can be distracted from enjoying the story by the fact that I simply can’t sympathize with the main character, while in a book like A Patchwork Planet, falling in love with the main character makes me fall in love with the book itself. Aaron, the protagonist of The Beginner’s Goodbye, falls somewhere in between Liam Pennywell and Barnaby Gaitlin on the likeability scale of Tyler characters. He actually has many unattractive personality traits, yet there is something endearing about him too. For me, the only real weakness with this novel was the ending — I wasn’t happy with the way things worked out for Aaron in the long run, and didn’t think the choices he made were consistent with the way his character had been developed throughout the book. But it’s still an enjoyable read and a great character study.

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