The Magazine

Accidental Novel

The Anne Tyler formula is showing its age.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By SUSIE POWELL CURRIE
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Digging to America

by Anne Tyler

Knopf, 280 pp., $24.95

You don't usually put down an Anne Tyler book wishing you'd known the characters better. By the time the prolific Baltimore author is through, we know most of her cast better than our own family members. We're familiar with their quirks, we've been to their favorite restaurants, we know why they married each other and what they think of their children. Sometimes, even houses become characters (e.g., the plaster-shedding Open Arms reception site-cum-domicile in Back When We Were Grownups). But in Digging to America we gain only a passing acquaintance with at least half of the central players.

Tyler's seventeenth novel opens promisingly enough, at the Baltimore airport with the arrival of two infant girls from Korea. Jin-Ho goes to Bitsy and Brad Donaldson, a graying, gregarious couple surrounded by a gaggle of well-wishing relations bearing balloons, a stroller, even a bassinet, not to mention cameras of every capability. The entourage sport large buttons identifying them by relationship to the new arrival. The other infant, Sooki, goes to the much younger Sami and Ziba Yazdan, who joyfully collect her without so much as a cell-phone snapshot while Sami's elegant Iranian mother, Maryam, looks on.

Aspiring supermom Bitsy looks up the Yazdans within weeks to compare notes, and soon the couples are fast friends. Meanwhile, Sooki's Iranian-American parents have renamed her Susan, while Jin-Ho's apologetically American parents not only keep her name but also read her Korean folktales and dress her in elaborate native outfits. The families become interwoven through annual Arrival Day parties--Bitsy's idea--that commemorate the day the girls came to Baltimore. (A much bigger deal at the Donaldsons, notes Sami in one of his wry takes on Those Zany Americans, than Jin-Ho's birthday.)

This is the first of Anne Tyler's novels to feature foreign-born characters, and she proves as adept at getting into Iranian heads as American ones. (This is helped along, surely, by Tyler's longtime marriage to an Iranian-born child psychiatrist, who died in 1997.) She deftly depicts the multilayered world of Iranian immigrants, where relationships hinge on, among other things, when one came to America and what one did in the old country. The trip through the various cultural accoutrements and thought processes is an engaging one.

The author has lost none of her way with imagery. Ziba's mother's cheek is "as soft as an old velvet purse." Her father's "parchment-colored head resembled an antique globe." And she handles toddler patois as deftly as Farsi. "I am not outgrown my binky," Jin Ho's younger sister firmly explains to their mother, who is planning an elaborate binky balloon launch that not even Hurricane Isabel will stop.

Still, some of Tyler's trademarks wear a bit thin this time around. She loves throwing mismatched couples together, and this one features the most peculiar pairing since The Accidental Tourist's Muriel and Macon, or Michael and Pauline from The Amateur Marriage. In those books, painstaking illumination of the characters helped explain the attraction, but at the end of America you're left wondering: What does she see in him?

For that matter, what does young, stylish interior decorator Ziba see in crunchy, overweening Bitsy who, even though they became mothers at the same instant, dispenses heavy-handed parenting advice to her friend as freely as party invitations? The husbands have even less in common, but the one scene that depicts friction between them is puzzling and resolves nothing. One gets the feeling that, in real life, the younger pair would let the friendship lapse early on, rather than buying a house near the older one. Also, if Bitsy's so social, why doesn't she seem to have any other friends? Even Maryam, who lives in self-imposed semi-exile, has three.

Of her in-laws, Bitsy's philosophy is "the less said about them, the better." Unfortunately, that seems to be Tyler's approach to drawing Brad Donaldson and both Sami and Ziba Yazdan. Brad never comes out of his wife's shadow, and the tantalizing glimpses into the younger couple's world are few and far between. This may especially frustrate longtime readers used to Tyler's lavishly described characters, or at least to seeing more of them than populate Digging to America.

Once, decades ago, when Tyler was still granting face-to-face interviews, she said of her characters, "I build a house for them and then I move on to the next house." In this case the house could have used a short list of improvements.

Susie Currie is a writer living in Maryland.