‘It was more than she had even thought to fantasize her entire family, gathered in one room, hearing for the first time that somebody thought she was lovely.’
Anne Tyler’s books have come into my reading life at the perfect time. I read my first Tyler novel, The Amateur Marriage, a few years ago and enjoyed her style of writing and complicated characters but it’s only recently that I seem to be drawn in to dive into her literary world with complete zeal.
Other female authors such as Elizabeth Strout, Mary Lawson, Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Patchett, to name just a few that come instantly to my mind, are in the same league. They all develop true to life characters who face life’s many challenges that are often familiar to us all, or when they are not, they allow the reader to cast a compassionate eye on their situation and what it is like to deal with their particular story of uncertainty, tragedy, growing up or growing older. Back When We Were Grown-ups is no different, in that it depicts life of a female protagonist who lives her life the best she can while finding solace in the routine of ordinary tasks, the challenge of dealing with conflict and the inevitable presence of loss, young and old, a series of situations she has to face.
‘… she was reflecting that really, this baby’s story was just a shortened version of everybody’s story. Get born; die. Nothing more to it than that.’
To get to that conclusion, the reader first meets 53-year-old Rebecca Davitch when she asks herself whether she has lived the life she wanted, or if her choice of life partner was possibly a mistake and she should have married her college sweet-heart instead. What follows is a compelling exploration of female mid-life crisis, truthful and sharply observed.
‘Really, I’ve finished my life,’ she said. ‘I finished it when the girls got grown. But here I am. Just hanging around, marking time, waiting for things to wind down.’
Rebecca is the centre of her family, always on call, ready to cook, brew some coffee or lend a helping hand. As can be the case with a character like this, compassionate and caring, I felt that her family took her for granted, coming in and out of her life like a breeze and hardly noticing what her needs and occupations are, or whether she is in need of care herself. She also runs an event business that requires her to understand her clients’ wishes, then organise the decorations and the food for their themed parties. It leaves very little room for her to think because she has become used to worrying and planning her life around other people, privately and professionally, ever since her husband died prematurely.
In a nutshell, it’s the story about a woman in her early fifties when the story opens who tries to understand what happened to her nineteen-year old self and whether there still is a connection between the two? The sense of belonging to a strong community is very well drawn and offers a lively setting to the story in among her questioning thoughts and reflexions.
Rebecca’s doubts lead to her attempts to rekindle with the man she used to believe was destined to be her husband. By reaching out to him, she wants to find out what it might have been like with another man, and maybe fill the painful gap that the sudden death of her husband left her with.
People don’t fundamentally change though and as Rebecca seems to conclude at the end of the story, the challenges thrown in her path and the people who surrounded her at the time have made her acquire skills she didn’t know she had in her. The main ability she is surprised to have developed and makes her the centre of the family is joyousness, and it’s the attribute that everyone close to her acknowledges and is drawn to.
‘Face it,’ I said. ‘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,’ I said.
There are wonderful paragraphs describing what it feels like going through midlife changes, such as menopausal symptoms. Most of all though, there are no twists or turns other than life with its pleasant and unpleasant surprises, and this is exactly why Anne Tyler touches so many readers, I think. She makes the ordinary extraordinary because human life doesn’t need exaggeration but the light shone onto the many diverse situations people can find themselves in and she does so with her captivating writing style.
‘There were still so many happenings yet to be hoped for in her life.’
I will miss Rebecca and her many happenings. I’d go as far as saying that I wish Tyler would write a follow up to her story.
Having said that, I still have many of her novels to look forward to, having so far only read five of her 22 books written to date (her 23rd novel is due to come out in 2022). Lucky me!
The Book in three words: subtle, wise and perceptive
I’d love to know your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it!
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person. The woman is Rebecca Davitch, a 53-year-old grandmother. Is she an imposter in her own life? she asks herself. Is it indeed her own life? Or is it someone else’s?
On the surface, Beck, as she is known to the Davitch clan, is outgoing, joyous, a natural celebrator. Giving parties is, after all, her vocation-something she slipped into even before finishing college, when Joe Davitch spotted her at a party in his family’s crumbling 19th century Baltimore row house, where giving parties was the family business. What caught his fancy was that she seemed to be having such a wonderful time. Soon this large-spirited older man, a divorcé with three little girls, swept her into his orbit, and before she knew it, she was embracing his extended family plus a child of their own and hosting endless parties in the ornate, high-ceilinged family home.
Now, some 30 years later, after presiding over a disastrous family picnic, Rebecca is caught unawares by the question of who she really is. How she answers it-how she tries to recover her girlhood self, that dignified grownup she had once been-is the story told in this beguiling, funny and deeply moving novel.
About the author
Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated at nineteen from Duke University and went on to do graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University. She has published 20 novels, her debut novel being If Morning Ever Comes in (1964). Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons , was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.