In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." All of Anne Tyler's families are different and that is certainly true of the Tull family that we meet in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.
We meet the family initially as its irascible matriarch, Pearl Tull, lies dying at age 85. Caught between life and death, she is beset by memories and by regrets. She struggles to tell Ezra, her favorite son, that he should have had an alternate mother, but she is unable to form the words. Her memories take her back to the time, some 30 years before, when her husband, Beck Tull, deserted her, leaving her to raise their three children on her own.
Beck was a traveling salesman and his children were used to him being away from home, so none of them noticed any difference at first. Their mother refused to tell them they had been deserted. She pretended - for years! - that he was just on another business trip. When she finally did get around to telling them, they had, of course, already figured it out and hardly even responded to her big announcement.
The three children could not be more different. Cody, the oldest, is a greedy and spiteful boy who delights in torturing his younger brother. He maintains a likable facade with other people, but with Ezra, he's just downright mean. As an adult, he suffers from obscure guilt and believes that everyone is out to cheat him.
Ezra, on the other hand, is a dreamy, nurturing kind of person. The focus of his life is food - not eating it, but preparing it for others. His greatest joy is in feeding people and watching them enjoy the food he has prepared. It is not surprising then that he should wind up as the owner of the Homesick Restaurant which gives the novel its title. As appealing as Ezra is, he sort of floats through life without making strong connections to others. There is a curious absence of passion in him. The love of his life, Ruth, who he plans to marry in his mid-twenties, is stolen from him by his jealous older brother who marries her himself. Ezra forgives them both.
Jenny, the daughter, was so young that she barely remembered the father who deserted them and yet it had a profound impact on her life for it left her at the mercy of an angry and sometimes violent mother. Jenny built a wall to protect herself. The mortar of her construction was energy and humor. Later in life, she is described as always laughing, always moving. She is never able to stop and take anything seriously for if she did, she might crack. She fears connection with others, even those with whom she should be closest.
Pearl Tull is of the opinion that there is something "off" in each of her children, and in that she is perceptive. But what is the cause of that? Could it possibly be the cold and ferocious parenting they received from her? And yet, Pearl, by her lights, did the best she could, struggling to provide materially for herself and three children. Perhaps there was no energy left over for spiritual or psychological nourishment. And, in fact, each of her children grew up to be a success in the eyes of the world: Cody an efficiency engineer much in demand; Ezra the contented owner of a successful restaurant; Jenny, a pediatrician who is thrice-married and ends up with a house full of kids, mostly those of her third husband, but it is a situation that seems to suit her right down to the ground. So, Pearl couldn't have been such an awful mother, could she? Well, read this wonderful book and decide for yourself.
The dysfunctional Tull family seems so real to me. I see members of my own family here, both the family I grew up in and the family I raised. I'm sorry to say that I could even see myself in Pearl Tull, probably the most unsympathetic character in the book. This is Anne Tyler's genius. From chapter to chapter, she switches voices from one character to another, until at the end, we have seen the entire story through the eyes of every character, even the absent husband and father, Beck Tull. And through the eyes of each of them, their own stories seem...reasonable, plausible. Ah, to be able to write like that!