Anne Tyler's wistful nonsense.
Aug 6, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 44 • By JAMES BOWMAN
But Will alone proves unworthy of his creator’s compassion. He is Tyler’s Lucifer, cast for all eternity into the outer darkness after he passes a mildly censorious but rather incomprehensible moral judgment on another character. Of course we get the idea. In order to recognize that she is who she is, Rebecca has to reject Will, willfully, all over again—even though the real self that Rebecca finally accepts is defined by her capacity for inclusion.
Excluding Will from the grace of the author amounts to excluding moral rigor. Tyler’s gentle reproof to Rebecca’s fantasizing is as far as she goes in the direction of moral censure. And even that comes with the stipulation that the lost Rebecca was her "girlhood self," mature, sensible, and responsible, while the found Rebecca is her middle-aged self, more childish and hence more desirable. (Thus the book’s title, Back When We Were Grownups.)
But the reader feels cheated. Will is too prominent a character to be disposed of in this way. We have gotten to know him too well, and even to feel sympathy for his inability to form human attachments. It is a crude parody of this psychic incapacity to make it indistinguishable from the habit of moral censoriousness—if all Will had to do was "lighten up," as the instinctively anarchic pop culture puts it, to have rafts of friends, a wife who wouldn’t leave him, and a daughter who wouldn’t hate him. As a fantasy of middle age, this is much less forgivable than Rebecca’s.
James Bowman is the American editor of the Times Literary Supplement.