When Virginia Woolf published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925 (her fourth novel), she set out to demonstrate what she thought was needed in modern fiction: an examination of the interior of her characters, the stream of consciousness that holds each of us together from moment to moment. What did not interest her were what she called the materialist details of novelists like John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells, which, she argued, had been done to death: the meticulous presentation of the exterior world in its redundant specificity. As her central figure she offered a woman in her 50’s who was having a midlife crisis, wondering if she had done the right thing in choosing the safer Dalloway, a member of Parliament, over the more dashing Peter Walsh, recently returned from India. What would her life have been, she wonders, if she had taken the other path? As it is, she now defines herself by the splendid parties she gives on her husband’s behalf. But could there have been something more?
In this, Anne Tyler’s 15th novel, we have much the same story, now transposed to a suburb of Baltimore that, as in most of Tyler’s fiction, is cute till it cloys. With shops named Discount Dashikis, Budding Genius and Lust for Linens, with relatives named No No, Min Foo (not Chinese) and Patch, we’re in the familiar neighborhood that apparently appeals to the imaginations of many Americansa Norman Rockwell concept of our age that rarely rings true.
Of course, beneath the schmaltz Tyler is trying to do something a good deal more significant. Her 53-year-old Rebecca is having a crisis no less severe than Clarissa Dalloway’s, and she, too, is renegotiating her life, wondering what would have been had she married her childhood beau instead of the dashing but older Joe Davitch. Hardly a member of Parliament, he was the proprietor of a party-giving family business called Open Arms. When he dies six years after his marriage to Rebecca, he leaves her with his three children from an earlier marriage, the one child they had together, his various quirky relations (of course, quirky) and an institutionalized role as a party giver. After several decades of this unexpected set of responsibilities, Rebecca just about had it.
Or so she intuits. But Tyler has a homey lesson to teach her, and she hammers it home. What happens happens, we are told. 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. And finally, after countless special moments of inadvertent epiphanies among the fondant frosting and champagne, Rebecca (and presumably the reader) gives in to the brainwashing, concluding she really had been having a wonderful time. It is, to be sure, much the same conclusion that Clarissa Dalloway reached.
But one suspects it is not the conclusion that the readers of Woolf’s book come to. Whereas Woolf offered questions similar to those that Tyler poses, she credits her readers with a good deal more intelligence and less patience for pablum. Mrs. Dalloway’s foil in the novel, after all, is Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked veteran of the First World War who throws himself from a window as Clarissa’s party gets under way. Rebecca Davitch’s foil is Poppy, a crusty old man whose 100th birthday celebration concludes the novel and underscores, by the very detailed listing of common experiences that Arnold Bennett and Co. would have relished, that our lives, though simple, are well worth the living. Not only the style of narration but the open-ended thesis of Woolf’s book seriously grapples with the complexity of anyone’s life. Tyler wants us to think she is doing the same thing, but she cannot resist the reassurance that all’s well that ends well. It’s not quite the same thing that consoled Candide, but it comes pretty close.
Tyler would not propose that this is the best of all possible worlds, but she would quite likely suggest that we tend to our gardens (with weekend trips to Budding Genius for manure), and thereby make do with life’s demonstrated mediocrity. Tyler quietly alludes to literary heavies throughout her novel, but Stevie Smith’s despair (I was much too far out all my life, and not waving but drowning) is described by Rebecca as just peculiar, and George Eliot’s call to live one’s conscience is translated into the Marines’ advertising motto.
The conclusion Rebecca reaches about her life may well be a wise one, however, and Tyler is probably on to an insight that, while couched in comedy, is bracingly realistic. In fact, the last fourth of the novel takes on a greater urgency and sincerity that suggests the whole thing might have made a terrific short story.