We first meet Willa at age eleven. She is the older of two daughters. Her sister is six. Her father is the stolid, dependable parent. Her mother is the drama queen, often making theatrical exits from the family whenever she's feeling unappreciated or misunderstood. She always comes back eventually, but her unpredictability marks the lives of her children forever and makes Willa vow that she will be a good mother, "which to her meant a predictable mother," Tyler writes.
Willa grows up in Pennsylvania, eventually goes off to college in the midwest, cuts short her education for an early marriage to a native Californian and moves to California where they raise their two sons. Then, when her first husband dies as a result of his own road rage bullying, she later remarries a semi-retired lawyer and they move to Phoenix, next to a golf course. Her husband is an avid golfer; she tries the sport but finds it boring. Her sons have grown up and moved on in their own careers. They don't need her anymore and seldom get in touch with her. Neither of them has married and neither has produced any grandchildren for Willa. She feels that vacancy deeply.
At age 61, Willa's life has become sadly predictable and without challenge. Then one day she gets a phone call that changes all that.
A former girlfriend of Willa's younger son has been injured and hospitalized and there is no one to care for the woman's young daughter. A neighbor finds Willa's phone number listed by the injured woman's phone and, mistaking her for the child's grandmother, she calls her to ask if she can come and care for her. Willa has nothing else going on in her life and takes the chance, even though she's never met the former girlfriend or her daughter. And, oh yes, the woman and her daughter live in Baltimore.
When Willa gets to Baltimore, she truly comes alive. She finds that she easily fits in with the larger community where the former girlfriend (Denise) and her daughter (Cheryl) and their dog (Airplane) live. It's a community peopled by interesting and diverse characters who are friends of the mother and daughter. These are people who know their neighbors and who look out for them. It's a true community, the kind of community that I think we would all like to live in, and it is lovingly drawn by Tyler.
Anne Tyler makes writing look easy. I think it is because she writes about ordinary people, people that any of us might know. Or be. Her stories and characters are relatable because we can see ourselves in them. Still, in spite of the fact that she has won a Pulitzer Prize and been short-listed for the Man Booker, it seems to me that Tyler doesn't really get the credit she deserves for being a great writer. When people list great writers of our day, she doesn't always get mentioned. She should.
I read Kate Tuttle's review of this book in The New York Times and found it particularly insightful, especially the last paragraph of that review, which, with apologies to Tuttle, I quote here:
Despite her many accolades, Tyler is sometimes dismissed for her books’ readability, for their deeply familiar pleasures. And she can occasionally spout a cliché (“Sometimes Willa felt she’d spent half her life apologizing for some man’s behavior”). However, it’s usually the kind of line that’s a cliché because it’s true. When I told a friend I was reading Anne Tyler, she said, “Oh, my mother loves her books!” In the world of serious literature, this is not a raving endorsement. But, just like Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House,” the novels of Anne Tyler seem simple because she makes the very difficult look easier than it is. Her books are smarter and more interesting than they might appear on the surface; then again, so are our mothers.Exactly!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars