Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

The first sentence of Anne Tyler’s 15th novel, Back When We Were Grown Ups, sounds like something out of a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Alas, this discovery has less to do with magic than with a late-middle-age crisis, which is visited upon Rebecca Davitch in the opening pages of the book. At 53, this perpetually agreeable widow is “wide and soft and dimpled, with two short wings of dry, fair hair flaring almost horizontally from a centre part”. Given her role as the matriarch of a large family–and the proprietress of a party-and-catering concern, The Open Arms–Rebecca is both personally and professionally inclined towards jollity. But at an engagement bash for one of her multiple stepdaughters, she finds herself questioning everything about her life: “How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who’s not really me?”

Did you ever have the feeling you are living the wrong life? You should be somewhere else and someone else? I think this did happen to me in the past a few times and this may be one of the reasons why I could relate so well to Rebecca, the main character of this novel. This was my first Anne Tyler novel and I liked it a great deal. It’s a marvelous novel. Warm, rich, touching. It’s not a novel in which there is a lot of action, not at all, there are a few intense scenes the rest are flashbacks, thoughts, feelings. Back When We Were Grownups explores if there are signs that we live the right life, if there are signs that we could read before things happen, “Prophetic Moments”, as Rebecca calls them.

Or is it just like Poppy, her late husband’s great-uncle states:

“And that’s where he and I differed,”  Poppy said. “Because I was always telling him, ‘Look,’ I said. ‘Face it,’ I said. ‘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,’ I said.”

During a picnic with her family Rebecca all of a sudden has this strong feeling of being at the wrong place. She is a fifty something widow, mother and grandmother and professional hostess. The house she has inherited from her husband, a grand old mansion, is used as a place where people can celebrate parties, weddings, birthdays. One of her daughters is a chef and does the cooking.

Rebecca looks back on her life and the turning point, the one moment that made her embark on this life that she has suddenly become so unsure of. When she was still a young woman, studying for a degree, dating a fellow student, Will, she was invited to a party at the mansion she is now living in and meets the older son of the family. He sees her and chooses her immediately, as his companion and as the mother for his three little daughters. His wife abandoned him for a dubious career as a singer and the poor man struggles to keep his girls happy. When he sees Rebecca she strikes him as someone very cheerful, which she wasn’t, as she thinks looking back. Two weeks later they are married. She has left her highschool sweetheart and moves in with this older man and the three little girls. They have a daughter of their own and organize parties at their house. Six years later he dies suddenly.

Rebecca wonders if she shouldn’t have stayed with Will, pursued her studies. At present she lives with her husbands 99-year-old great-uncle. The old man is somewhat demented but still appears very intelligent and articulate, just very forgetful. His wish is a birthday party for his hundredth birthday. Rebecca is afraid of all the effort this will require and doubts he will even remember it the next day but someone says that he will still enjoy it while it lasts and so she gives in.

The birthday party is really the culmination point of the novel. It’s a wonderful final scene, very rich and full of life. The old man enjoys every moment of it and describes to those gathered around him with great minutiae every instant of this memorable day.

He must be nearing the finishing line now; he was dressing for the party (“…the crackly  feel of starched shirtsleeves when yu slither your arms inside them…”) And anyhow Rebecca was enjoying this. It was sort of like a report on what it was like to be alive., she decided. let’s say you had to report back to heaven at the end of your time on earth, tell them what your personal allotment of experience had been: wouldn’t is sound like Poppy’s speech? The smell of radiator dust on a winter morning, the taste of hot maple syrup…

This is one of the best and most touching scenes in a novel that is full of wonderful moments.

But before we arrive at Poppy’s birthday, we follow Rebecca as she tests the possibilities she might have missed. She contacts Will after all these years, gets some books from the university.

This is a novel about possibilities, lost dreams, second chances, family and love and ultimately about chosing the right path and belonging. I really loved this book. I liked Rebecca and many of the other characters, especially Poppy, the great-uncle. I liked how it shows that choosing a partner also means choosing a life and that maybe sometimes when we feel we are just drifting we are actually just sliding along because we are on the right path. Back When we Were Grownups also takes a very close look at parenting and step parenting. Rebecca never makes a difference between any of her girls.

I always like novels that explore alternative life styles or unusual families and big old houses. Rebecca lives with her late husbands great-uncle, every Thursday the whole family gathers at her place, every evening she is on the phone with her best friend, her brother-in-law. She is surrounded by people and life, still there are these moments for which I loved the book even more:

And anyone would agree that “Stardust” was a melancholy song. So that was probably why, in the middle of “How Old Are You?” she felt an ache of homesickness in her own house.

Did you read any novels by Anne Tyler? I got Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (said to be her best) and The Amateur Marriage that I would like to read next.

If I had to compare her, there are some recent authors who came to my mind, Rachel Cusk and Ayelet Waldman and maybe Rebecca Miller.