Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

by Valerie MacEwan


O, may I join the choir invisible . . .

Ruth gets up from the porch swing, walks over and hands me Anne Tyler’s new book, Back When We Were Grownups, open to page 220. She looks confused.

“For some reason, I am reminded of a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Here, hold my place, let me see if I can find the quote. Let me go upstairs and get my Treasury of the Familiar.”

cover art

Back When We Were Grownups

Anne Tyler

(Alfred A. Knopf)

I glance at the book in my hands and read the page to which she’s referring. It seems rather innocuous. The main character, Beck, has her friend Will over for dinner and her children are telling family stories. Beck’s step-daughter, NoNo, believes she has inherited psychic powers that allow her to see the future. Sounds like vintage Tyler. It is not a particularly explosive or imaginative scene. Most of the scenes in Tyler’s new book are placid, non-controversial.

Ruth returns and hands me a small yellowed piece of notebook paper. “It wasn’t in the Treasury, I had the quote,” she tells me. “I have a little notebook I used to write things in, a diary.”

The paper is filled with her writing, there are no margins or lines. It’s obvious she used a fountain pen and I think of my father’s pen. The one in the marble holder that’s been on the desk for as long as I can remember. But she didn’t use his pen. “The nib of a fountain pen is influenced by the hand using it,” my father told me when I was young. “We must each have our own pens, we do not share,” he said.

“Read the quote. Eliot is the essence of Tyler,” Ruth tells me. “Middlemarch chronicles the lives of ordinary people.” I hand the book back to her as she says, “Let me read on, figure this book out a little bit more.” She resumes her porch-swing position, grabbing a piece of rope we’ve anchored to a shutter nearby so she can pull on it to keep the swing in motion. She asks me to get her another glass of wine.

Before going inside, I glance at what she handed me. The yellowed piece of paper is difficult to read. She thinks her handwriting has become corrupted over time because of her arthritic hands, but in truth, it hasn’t changed much in 64 years. It’s always been a thorny task, deciphering her words. The date on the bottom of the paper is Jan. 2, 1938:

“In the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them in much the same manner as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardors in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self waked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in this world more subtle than the process of their gradual change!”

There’s more, but I get the point. At the bottom of the page, next to the date is the word Middlemarch. “Can I keep this piece of paper while I work on my review?” I ask.

“Certainly,” she answers. “I’ll put it in the book, then you’ll find it later. You know how you are about pieces of paper. My wine?”

She’s finished another ten pages by the time I return to the porch with her wine. Handing me the book, she says, “A-ha. See? It’s as I told you. Read this.”

“Where’s your man friend?” he asked.

“He’s gone.”

“You ditched him?”

“Yes, but that’s not the problem. The problem is, I’ve outlived myself.”

“Well,” he told her, “remember what George Eliot said.”

“What did George Eliot say?”

“Or maybe it wasn’t George Eliot. At any rate: ‘It’s never too late to do what you want to do.’ Remember that.”

“What?” Rebecca said. “Well, of all the—Why, that’s just plain wrong! Suppose I wanted to—I don’t know; suppose I wanted to get pregnant! That’s just plain ridiculous!”

She was so outraged that she hung up, not knowing she was planning to. Then she regretted it. When the phone rang a few seconds later, she lifted the receiver and said, “Sorry.”

“I just remembered,” Zeb said, “It wasn’t ‘do what you want to do.’ It was ‘be what you want to be.’ I think.”

“I’m just feeling a little tired,” Rebecca told him.

“And I don’t even know for sure that it was George Eliot.”

She said, “Thanks for trying, Zeb.”

“I knew there was something about Middlemarch in this book. Some faint breath of it. A professor must have made us read Eliot, 1938 would have been my last semester at the University of Cincinnati. I don’t think I would have read that book unless it was required. I don’t remember it too well, but then again, I’m getting old and I forget things.”

“Geez, it was almost sixty-five years ago. I don’t think forgetting the plot of a book you read sixty-five years ago in college means you’re entering some advanced state of senile dementia,” I tell her, laughing.

“I suppose you’re right. But I do remember this. Middlemarch was about life choices. Marriage versus vocation. I recall thinking I should marry your father because I knew him so well, for so long, and Eliot believed short, romantic courtships lead to trouble. Couples shouldn’t marry without getting to know each other. Eliot also believed the best working marriages were the ones in which women had a greater say. Middlemarch had an unhappy ending, I believe. This book probably won’t end on an unhappy note, Tyler doesn’t usually do that. I’m almost through with it.

“This character Beck seems overly concerned about her weight, it could be a personal thing with Tyler. The only fault I find with this one is that she takes a little too long to get the people where they’re going. It seems to drag a bit, but it may be my mood.” She resumes reading; I go inside to finish cooking our dinner . . .

Back When We Were Grownups weaves a compelling tale of the life of Rebecca “Beck” Davitch. Forced to reconcile with her collective experiences, she considers the choices she’s made, the unconsciously followed paths which have defined her existence. Beck reviews the last thirty years of her life, tries to “recover her girlhood self” and the self she imagined she once was.

While Eliot believed marriages held in haste after short engagements would result in unfulfilled and unhappy lives, Tyler sets up a compelling counter-argument. Beck reviews her life, her hasty marriage, and questions the relevance of the space she’s occupied in the world during her life.

Poppy tells Beck, “Face it. There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you’ve got.”

In this, as in other Tyler novels, the story unfolds as the main character considers the routines which comprising their daily existence accumulate and the sum of life is realized once the individual contemplates the total. Tyler brings us back to ourselves by creating characters that mimic the known, the common place, of our own experience.

Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Breathing Lessons, member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, author of fifteen novels in thirty-seven years, Anne Tyler has consistently delivered stories which chronicle choices we all make, the life decisions which make us whole. Rather than succumb to the crisis of identity suffered by the everyman, the ordinary person, her novels contain characters who come to grips with the consequences of their choices and learn to appreciate their own reality, who begin to feel good in their own skin. These aren’t the lives of the rich and famous, they are the lives of regular people.

Back When We Were Grownups is quintessential Tyler.

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