Anne Tyler is one of my favourite novelists. She writes about her characters, their usually very ordinary lives, and their often extraordinary thoughts, feelings and motivations, so deftly that she puts most other writers to shame. She can capture in a sentence what many writers can’t in a chapter of exposition. She takes us right into the heart of her characters and explores what makes them who they are, and why they act the way they do.
I’ve read most of Tyler’s 17 novels, and while I think A Patchwork Planet remains my favourite, Digging to America is certainly one of her best. In this novel Tyler explores the complex web of interaction between two families — the Iranian-American Yazdans and the all-American Donaldsons — when they become friends after both adopting Koren orphan baby girls. Tyler uses multiple points of view skilfully. We see how one character’s actions look to the eyes of family and friends, and then see how those same actions appear to the character herself. It’s a beautiful, multi-layered view of a group of compelling and likable characters.
The central concern in this novel is the idea of belonging — how an immigrant comes to feel they belong in a new country, how an adopted child comes to belong to a new family, how two very different people come to “belong” in a relationship together. Characters struggle with loss and grief, with feeling like outsiders and believing they always will be. The novel’s most poignant insight — finally realized by Maryam Yazdan, who has spent her whole life feeling she will never fit in to American culture — is that everyone is to some degree an outsider, seeking the magical key that will somehow make them feel that they belong.
This is a beautiful book. If you haven’t read Anne Tyler before and if you enjoy sensitive, thoughtful, perceptive novels about human relationships, you will probably like Digging to America. And then — lucky you!– you have 16 other Anne Tyler novels to explore and enjoy!!