THERE IS A CERTAIN KIND of young man’s novel—George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying comes to mind —that simply can’t get over the fact that men settle down, marry, have children, and get steady jobs to support them. Orwell seems to find such behavior outlandish, at once horrifying and admirable, instead of what most men have always done.
In several recent books, Anne Tyler has written a sort of middle-aged female equivalent of this kind of novel. Her latest, Back When We Were Grownups, following Ladder of Years and Breathing Lessons, takes as its subject women in their fifties who have devoted their lives to what used to be called "homemaking" and who suddenly begin to wonder, once they have a moment to think, whether it has been worth it—or whether they haven’t frittered away their potential in the years of cooking and cleaning and carpooling.
The answer, in all three novels, seems to be a qualified "yes." It has been worth it. But it’s really the moment of quasi-feminist doubt that interests Anne Tyler. She is not quite unaware that she is skirting a great banality, but she cannot resist it. Her latest winsome heroine is a fifty-three-year-old widow, Rebecca Davitch, who is described on the first page of Back When We Were Grownups as "a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." Like the hero of Orwell’s novel, Rebecca finally comes to accept her destiny as the person who, in fact, she has turned into, and the reader is left to wonder quite why this counter-discovery is worth the 256 pages it takes to record.
The novel offers us a hint of more serious purposes by making Rebecca’s life a kind of mistake. Her late husband, Joe, spotted her in a moment of laughter at a party—and proceeded to court her on the assumption that she would bring a bit of joy into his life. Joe didn’t realize that Rebecca had, in fact, been desperately bored at the party. Her tendency to introspection and melancholy is as strong as his own, but she takes it as a challenge to live up to his idea of her—even though that means leaving her long-term boyfriend, dropping out of college, taking on three small stepdaughters whose mother had walked out on them, and helping out with the family business.
That family business is the hosting and catering of parties. Joe and Rebecca rent out their old Baltimore townhouse, which, with Tylerian tweeness, they call The Open Arms. This providing of space for other people’s celebrations is meant to be analogous to their inclusiveness, their ability to assimilate new members, the latest of whom is Peter, the twelve-year-old stepson of one of Rebecca’s stepdaughters, who quickly forms an attachment to his new step-grandmother. This boy, who has no other purpose in the novel than to be pathetic and lovable, reminds us that moral showiness is Anne Tyler’s besetting sin. With each new novel we meet yet another gaggle of lovable Baltimoreans, scratching their improbable livings from doing picturesque and charming things in decaying neighborhoods of the city.
But Joe is killed in a car accident after six years of marriage, which left Rebecca to live his life and look after the children he has given her (including another daughter of their own). Tyler remains skeptical about the doctrines of personal self-fulfillment according to which so many of us live our lives. "There is no true life," says Joe’s uncle, the centenarian Poppy, with whom Rebecca has also been saddled. "Your true life is the one you end up with." But Tyler means us to have sympathy and affection for the would-be self-fulfillers of middle age, even though we know (or perhaps because we know) that their yearnings are all a sentimental fantasy.
So, at any rate, it proves in Rebecca’s case. Unlike Delia in Ladder of Years, she never has to leave home for her daydream, which is of the son she never had. She thinks of him as being called Tristram and having the features of her college boyfriend, Will Allenby. Were this child and this husband the appendages of the right person, the one she should have become? She goes in search of Will to see if any sparks can still be struck from the embers of their relationship. A professor of physics and head of the department at Macadam College, near Baltimore, Will is divorced from his much younger wife, Laura, a former student, who left him along with their daughter, Beatrice. Now both the ex-wife and the daughter, a sullen, ill-mannered thing with dyed hair and piercings, hate him, and Will, apparently without other friends or family, confides in Rebecca that he has "hit rock bottom."
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.