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.

24 thoughts on “Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

    • Thanks for visiting. No, I haven’t read it, this was my first and I really liked it. I’m glad to hear there are more good ones then. Did you like Noah’s Compas? I just checked on amazon, there seems to be a resemblance as if she told Poppy’s story.

  1. I really like the sound of this, and I love those passages you shared. I’ve only read one Tyler novel before – Breathing Lessons, which I loved. Thank you for reminding me to read her again!

    • You are welcome. You just reminded me of Kate Atkinson for which I am grateful. I think it would be worth reading more Anne Tyler. I can highly recommend this one. I’ll be curious to see which one you will choose next. I think I will try the one RFW suggested, Noah’s Compass.

  2. The first question was really interesting, do I ever have a feeling that I live in the wrong life…hmm I don’t think so. My life is not ideal but I enjoy it a lot.

    This book sounds wonderful. I really like the part when you say that the book is about parenting. Parents-children relationship has its own way in to my heart.

    • I think all of us, who might have wanted to do something else in life will ask this question sooner or later. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a partner but with your job. I think this feeling comes up when you feel pushed too much by outer forces. I had that for a while. Even though I want to change jobs again I still do not feel I am in the wrong life. I liked the parenting part a lot. I think you can be a great parent without the child being your own. I liked that part and her capability of sharing the love. In some ways she even felt closer to one or the other of her step-daughters. Making her a professional hostess was a good choice for expressing her ability to give.

    • Anne Tyler is far from being depressing, so that was not a good comparison. It is strange though, I can’t remember Arlington Park as depressing at all. Odd. But it wouldn’t surprise me as I am not a good indicator of depressing normally. Many things that others would consider to be depressing like endless rain I find uplifting. What I meant is more the details of the descriptions of domestic life. But Ayelet Waldman is the better comparison. Anne Tyler has written a lot. I’m sure you would find the one or the other that you would like.

      • I’ll try to read one of hers.

        In Arlington Park, the weather was always foul. They were living in a depressing suburb. These women were vapid and not even good mothers.And the men were terrible too.
        When I read this I thought “This is why I’ll never quit my job to be a housewife.”

        • It is so odd, as much as I liked Arlington Park, I have forgotten almost everything about it, I just remember how much I liked it. There is absoluetely no similarity to my own life and that fascinated me somehow… Plus the rain…

  3. I am a huge Anne Tyler fan and have read almost all her novels, and found them all marvellous. I loved The Ladder of Years, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Breathing Lessons and The Amateur Marriage and A Patchwork Planet. But probably best of all, I loved The Accidental Tourist. She writes so vividly and so well.

    • I’m glad to hear it that measn there are many other books to be discovered. I do agree, she writes very well. Her writing is deceptively simple, highly redable but there are so many layers to peel off.

  4. I think I am Anne Tyler’s number one fan. I have read every book she has ever published and most of them are totally memorable. Ladder of Years is my all time favourite. I see she has a new one out this year – The Tin Can Tree – I shall buy it as soon as it is available in the UK

    • That’s really good to hear. When I like a book by an author as much as this one then I sometimes don’t dare reading another one but she seems to have written many good ones. I am definitely looking forward to go on reading her books now. I had never heard of the Ladder of Years before Litlove and you mentioned it. It’s on the wish list as well now.

  5. I love Anne Tyler books and have read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, (my favorite) The Accidental Tourist, A Slipping Down Life and Breathing Lessons. I liked all of them, but it was pretty hard to beat Homesick Restaurant, in my opinion.

    • I wanted to read Dinner at the Homeseick Restaurant or Noah’s Compass next although I usually often keep books that I think I might like for later. Such a silly habit. I might end up never reading some of the books I might have enjoyed the most.

  6. I think I could relate very well to this one! I have it somewhere here, but I think I will start with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant–only as I started it last year but knew I couldn’t quite squeeze it in. I don’t know why I have never read her and she seems so well liked!

    • Me too, I was wondering why I didn’t start reading her earlier. I can very well imagine reading most of her novels. I think you will like this one. While reading I had a few moments in which I thought: “I know this feeling.” Where are the days when I had the time to leisurely read everything from one author?

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  9. Wonderful review, Caroline. I read Anne Tyler’s ‘Breathing Lessons’ and discovered that Emma had reviewed it and she had said in her review that she was inspired by this review of yours. It looks like in our little gang of book bloggers, you were the first one to read Anne Tyler 🙂 I should have guessed! After reading your review, I couldn’t resist comparing ‘Back When We Were Grownups’ to ‘Breathing Lessons’. The main characters in both the books are closer to 50-years old, there is an old man character in both the books, one of the main characters looks back on her life and thinks of what might have been (in ‘Breathing Lessons’ it is not the main character Maggie, but her friend Serena who does that), beautiful descriptions of everyday life. But from your review it looks like Rebecca is a more likeable character than Maggie in ‘Breathing Lessons’. I love Anne Tyler for the setting she describes and the everyday wisdom that her characters arrive at and the small, beautiful scenes of everyday life that she describes. I liked very much this line from your review – “sometimes when we feel we are just drifting we are actually just sliding along because we are on the right path.” I enjoyed reading ‘Breathing Lessons’ and now after reading your review I want to read ‘Back When We Were Grownups’. I also want to read ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I read your review. That must have been while you were reading mine. It seems I was the first of the newbies. 🙂 There are a few Anne tyler fans who have been following here since years.
      I was thinking this week that I should start to read books by authors I really liked but haven’t read more than once.
      I think her fiction is called domestic fiction but that seems to be something I really like.
      Maggie didn’t sound likeable. Many people say that “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” is her best. I also got Noah’s Compass, The Accidental Tourist and The Amateur Marriage.
      Maybe we should have an Anne Tyler week. 🙂 Now that’s a thought.

      • I like that term ‘domestic fiction’. It is a nice way of describing Anne Tyler’s books. I want to read ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’ now! Nice to know that you have that and ‘The Accidental Tourist’ and ‘The Amateur Marriage’ and ‘Noah’s Compass’. All very interesting titles. I went to a secondhand book sale a few days back and stumbled upon Anne Tyler’s ‘Saint Maybe’. I couldn’t resist getting, though I haven’t heard of that title before. It made me think that when we discover a writer and fall in love with the first book of her / him that we read, we suddenly start encountering that writer in all kinds of unlikely places. Anne Tyler week is a great and wonderful idea 🙂

        • I think it is a good way to describe her. I know it’s often used as a deprecatory term but I don’t find it deprecatory at all.
          I know what you eman, it happens to me as well and that’s how I end up with a whole pile of a new author and all of the books unread.
          Hmm… I’m tempted by Anne Tyler week now. I hope Saint Maybe is good. It’s a title I haven’t heard.

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