My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this book. I can't think of any Anne Tyler book I've ever read - and I think I've read them all - that I haven't enjoyed, but this one seemed special to me. Most likely the professional critics would not rank it among Tyler's best work such as Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and The Accidental Tourist, but for me it was a profoundly moving read, perhaps because I identified strongly with one of the characters.
My enjoyment could also have had something to do with my personal history. As a new college graduate many years ago, the first job that I landed was in Baltimore. I packed my bags and went there knowing absolutely no one who lived there and just the basic facts about the city. My employer recommended a local family who had a room to rent. I could live there until I managed to get myself sorted out. So, I moved into this row house in a middle-class neighborhood and rode the bus to and from work every day.
It didn't take long for me to realize that the job really wasn't what I wanted. Ultimately, I resigned and found another job that took me to Atlanta, where at least I did have a few friends, but I never forgot that Baltimore family, who could actually have served as models for the Whitshank family in this book.
We get to know three generations of the Whitshank family, although not in chronological order. Tyler begins the tale with Abby and Red Whitshank and their four children who live in the family's beloved family home.
It is a unique house that was built by Red's father, J.R., known to all as Junior, Whitshank. As we learn much later in the story, at age twenty-six, Junior had come to Baltimore from farther south initially to get away from an underaged lover, a girl named Linnie Mae Inman, who he thought was eighteen but later learned was only thirteen. Junior was a talented carpenter and builder and he had dreams of establishing his own business.
His dreams were interrupted five years later when Linnie Mae showed up in town with expectations of marrying him. He had no intentions in that regard and was not making enough money to support two people, but Linnie Mae was a very determined woman. In time, Junior's dreams did come true and so did Linnie Mae's. They were married and had two children, Merrick and Redfield. Red.
What became the Whitshank family home was originally the Brill house, build by Junior and his workers for a family named Brill, but it was in every sense Junior's dream house. He was determined to live in it one day. And so it came to pass.
Red continued his father's business and, when Junior and Linnie Mae were both killed in an auto accident, Red and his family moved into the family home.
It is through Abby's eyes and her voice that we learn much of this story. Abby was a social worker and she was always bringing "orphans" home with her. (They were not necessarily orphaned, just people who needed taking care of.) She was an open-hearted person who had fallen in love with Red one day in 1959 when she was at the Whitshank house where a tulip poplar tree in the front yard had been cut down. She saw Red standing over the stump of the tree, counting its rings to determine the tree's age. That was enough to tell her that he was the kind of man she could love.
Red and Abby had two girls and two boys, although the younger boy's true story is not one that we learn until near the end of the book. They are generally a happy family, although sometimes dysfunctional. That is especially true of the older boy, Denny, who is something of an outsider and never really seems to fit in. (He's the one I identified with.) He tends to go his own way and years sometimes go by when he is not in contact with his family.
We get to know the family as Abby and Red are getting older and there are concerns about their health and whether they can continue to live on their own. For once, all the children are present, even Denny, and it is through this gathering that we learn the story of the family - its past, present, and, eventually, future.
Reading a Tyler novel one feels a part of the story. The reader is not so much a witness to events, family secrets and unguarded moments, as a presence, a participant, in these events. Maybe that's because she writes of families and, even though we each like to think that our family is different and special, there is an essential nature, a commonality, to all families. It takes a special writer to be able to capture that essence and put it on the page. Someone like Anne Tyler.
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