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Back When We Were Grownups: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – April 9, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

The first sentence of Anne Tyler's 15th novel 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 Back When We Were Grownups. 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 center 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 toward 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?"

She spends the rest of the novel attempting to answer these questions--and trying to resurrect her older, extinguished self. Should she take up the research she began back in college on Robert E. Lee's motivation for joining the Confederacy? More to the point, should she take up with her college sweetheart, who's now divorced and living within easy striking range? None of these quick fixes pans out exactly as Rebecca imagines. What she emerges with is a kind of radiant resignation, best expressed by 100-year-old Poppy on his birthday: "There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be." A tautology, perhaps, but Tyler's delicate, densely populated novel makes it stick.

Yes, Poppy. There are also characters named NoNo, Biddy, and Min Foo--the sort of saccharine roll call that might send many a reader scampering in the opposite direction. But Tyler knows exactly how to mingle the sweet with the sour, and in Back When We Were Grownups she manages this balancing act like the old pro she is. Even the familiar backdrop--shabby-genteel Baltimore, which resembles a virtual game preserve of Tylerian eccentrics--seems freshly observed. Can any human being really resist this novel? It is, to quote Rebecca, "a report on what it was like to be alive," and an appealingly accurate one to boot. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

On the first page of Tyler's stunning new novel, Rebecca Davitch, the heroine (and heroine is exactly the right word) realizes that she has become the "wrong person." No longer the "serene and dignified young woman" she was at 20, at 53 Rebecca finds she has become family caretaker and cheerleader, a woman with a "style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady." So she tries to do something about it. In the midst of her busy life as mother, grandmother and proprietor of the family business, the Open Arms (she hosts parties in the family's old Baltimore row house), Rebecca attempts to pick up the life she was leading before she married, back when she felt grownup. She visits her hometown in Virginia, locates the boyfriend she jilted and renews her intellectual interests. But as Rebecca ponders the life-that-might-have-been, the reader learns about the life-that-was. At 20, she left college and abandoned her high school sweetheart to marry a man who already had a large family to support. A year later, she had a baby of her own; five years later, her husband died in an auto accident, and she was left to raise four daughters, tend to her aging uncle-in-law and support them all. And a difficult lot they are, seldom crediting Rebecca for holding her rangy family together. Yet like all of Tyler's characters, they are charming in their dysfunction. And much as one feels for Rebecca, much as one wants her to find love, it's difficult to imagine her leaving or upsetting the family order. Tyler (The Accidental Tourist; Breathing Lessons) has a gift for creating endearing characters, but readers should find Rebecca particularly appealing, for despite the blows she takes, she bravely keeps on trying. Tyler also has a gift genius is more like it for unfurling intricate stories effortlessly, as if by whimsy or accident. The ease of her storytelling here is breathtaking, but almost unnoticeable because, rather like Rebecca, Tyler never calls attention to what she does. Late in the novel, Rebecca observes that her younger self had wanted to believe "that there were grander motivations in history than mere family and friends, mere domestic happenstance." Tyler makes it plain: nothing could be more grand. (May 8)Forecast: A 250,000 first printing seems almost modest considering the charms of Tyler's latest and the devotion of her readers. A Random House audiobook and a large-print edition will appear simultaneously, and the book is a BOMC main selection and an alternate selection of QPB, the Literary Guild, the Doubleday Book Club and Doubleday Large Print.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 273 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reissue edition (April 9, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345446860
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345446862
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (309 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #219,442 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. This is her 17th novel. Her 11th, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. A member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, she lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

127 of 131 people found the following review helpful By Antoinette Klein on May 24, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Much has been made, and deservedly so, of the excellent opening line to this novel---Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. Not since Daphne DuMaurier penned Rebecca have I read such a strong, enticing opening. Coincidentally, the heroine of this story is named Rebecca. Like many middle-aged women, she reaches a point where she wonders what happened to that intelligent, inquisitive 18-year old and how she evolved into the family planner and consoler, a grandmother who dresses like a bag lady.
Anne Tyler keeps her brilliant humor with this one as she gives us quirky, slightly offbeat characters surrounded by chaos, trying to make it while sliding downhill all the time. This work is all about the choices we make and the big "What IFS."
In the midst of one typically chaotic moment, while trying to cheer up an unhappy, grumbling family during a picnic, a perpetually jolly Rebecca is shocked to realize what a clean, simple life she would have led of it weren't for love. Nothing in the much-extended and offbeat Davitch family ever "flows" and it is always Rebecca at the epicenter of all crises. Apparently, she learns, you grow to love whomever you're handed whether it's a 99-year old man on his way to the hospital or a daughter who drops husband after husband, always after having given birth to a child.
Tyler gives us a look into the everyday events in life that are fraught with laughter (but only to an outsider or years later in retrospect.
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64 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Kinsey Millhone on May 11, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Anne Tyler is a private person who never gives interviews, does readings, or signs autographs. For many years, I lived less than a mile away from her home in Northern Baltimore, and occasionally I would drive past in hopes of catching a glimpse of her out in the yard. I never did. However, in her last book, "A Patchwork Planet," she did provide one small window into her personal life: a dedication in memory of her late husband, who must have died while that book was being written.
With that piece of information in mind, it becomes apparent to the reader that "Back When We Were Grownups" is Tyler's first novel as a widow. The main character, Rebecca, is widowed; there are aching descriptions of what it's like to lose a loved one. If this is Tyler's most melancholy work, well, it's understandable, given the circumstances.
Somehow, she manages to make each new family of Baltimore eccentrics seem fresh; the dialogue rings true, and each character's traits are carefully observed (I particularly loved Rebecca's ex-boyfriend's obsession with his home-cooked chili). My only quarrel is that there are SO many characters that at times, I felt like drawing up a family tree just to keep track of all the in-laws and children and ex-husbands (not to mention the many repairmen constantly tending to Rebecca's crumbling old house). This is a bittersweet, beautifully written work.
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48 of 50 people found the following review helpful By C. Garrett on July 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I have to be honest. I nearly put this book down within the first few pages, having been introduced to such characters named Biddy, Patch, NoNo, and Jeep. I mean REALLY, I was wondering what was up with Anne Tyler's choice of names. Nevertheless, I stuck with it and discovered that the unique nick-names (as later found out) are a benefit to keeping the family tree straight, saving the reader from what would otherwise cause the greatest of headaches... there are so many people in this book!
That is how I know Tyler is a great author; she offers us a book of only 274 pages and gives us a story that is 1,000 pages in magnitude, a history of so many persons tucked into this easy-to-read package. "Back When We Were Grownups" truly deserves four and a half stars. (My best rating, being that I don't believe in a perfect score.)
I truly empathized with the character of Rebecca, a widowed fifty-three year old woman whose sole responsibility seems to be as peace-maker to her riotous family; meanwhile, paying the bills as a professional party-planner at the "Open Arms." She seems to have lost her life, having given all her time to everything or everyone other than herself. She starts to wonder about the road less traveled and what makes this novel inviting is that she goes back to that road, years later, and picks up the journey.
"Back When We Were Grownups" is a book about re-evaluating our choices, deciding whether we've carried our life or if life has carried us. This is a novel about the question of fate, if one has - somehow, accidentally - denied her own true destiny.
In its conclusion, I had two distinct endings in mind.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 14, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The wonder of Anne Tyler is her ability to hear and capture the sounds and rhythms of the ordinary. Her characters live and talk like real people and she's got an uncanny ability to make everyday relationships and situations fascinating. She is a truly gifted storyteller whose writing never intrudes upon the story she's telling -- a skill some of our flashier, more precious authors would do well to master.
"Back When We Were Grownups" ranks among her best work. The characters are more endearing and memorable than those in "A Patchwork Planet" (with whom it was somewhat difficult to connect). Rebecca Davitch and her world are both comfortingly familiar and pleasantly unexpected. It's what we've come to expect from Ms. Tyler and what sends me to the bookstore every few years to buy her latest release, in hardcover, no questions asked. She is a writer of consistent quality and restraint.
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