Book Beat September 05 2001

Anne Tyler is the best kind of fiction writer: sneaky. Her well-constructed prose, like her characters, goes along unassumingly, building worlds so comfortable that readers scarcely realize they’re reading. In her latest novel, Back When We Were Grownups, Tyler introduces rumpled, imperfect people in a rumpled, imperfect setting (Baltimore) that she evokes gracefully and subtly. One gets so familiar with her characters and caught up in their actions that only after reading it does one realize Grownups is a brilliant account of a full-blown middle-age identity crisis.

At 53, Rebecca Davitch begins to question the path her life has taken over the decades. Sprung from a tepid engagement at 19 when she fell for a widower with several small children, she quit college and took on a ready-made family and new vocation, only to be widowed several years later. Now, seeing the family she’s raised, the business she’s run, and, more importantly, herself, from a new perspective, she’s horrified to think that she has grown so far apart from her young self. For Rebecca, this realization is symbolized by her hair: “Once she had been the most serene and dignified young woman ... She had worn her hair in a crown of braids, and friends had complimented her on the level way she carried her head, which had made her broad figure seem almost regal.”

Now a decidedly non-regal, floppy-haired, blowzy grandmother in a mildewy house, she sets out to try on her old self. On this score, Rebecca faces the age-old conundrum: Does loving someone and/or raising children mean losing yourself? If so, is that acceptable? If not, how do you get your old self back? And what if you realize you don’t like your old self, what then? By turns comical and sad, and in ways thoroughly engrossing to the reader, her search leads to unexpected and unglamorous conclusions.

Stylistically, Tyler’s prose stays out of the reader’s way, creating a whole that is better than its parts. Her words occasionally leap off the page, though, as when she describes a newborn as “curled over like a little cashew.” Reading Grownups is a pleasant diversion. It is only when one comes to the end that the universal struggles of Everywoman reach out and grab the reader by the throat.??