90 of 94 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2012
I have been reading Ann Tyler since 1979, and this is one of her best, a gentle portrait of grief and longing.
The plot synopsis is simple: Aaron's wife Dorothy dies, and as he works through his grief, he thinks he sees her now and then. That's really all there is to it. The charm of the book lies in its ability to mine the richness of everyday life for moments of pain, humor and illumination.
Aaron, a man with physical handicaps, has been fending off the care of others for most of his life. As a result he's had a mostly regular life. When he meets Dorothy, a stolid, socially clueless doctor eight or nine years his senior, he falls in immediate, dumbstruck love. I just couldn't get enough of how Aaron loved his wife, I adored his descriptions of her every little detail, the way he cherished up her looks, her plain wardrobe, her untidy ways and her blunt manner of expression. It made his pain so very real.
Aaron's life is full of whimsical, endearing people. He really is beloved, even though he prefers to push people away rather than admit to his pain. Having watched a widower work through the loss of a wife, I recognized Aaron's avoidance, his business for business's sake, the way he worked much harder at denying his grief than processing it. This is realistic, I think.
But of course, since this is an Anne Tyler book, he's going to work through it, because Tyler always gives her characters the room to change, learn, grow and find happiness. This is one of the reasons I love to read her. This is a spare little book, but it is fully realized and completely satisfying.
Very highly recommended.
116 of 124 people found the following review helpful
Aaron is a thirtysomething book publisher. Disabled after a childhood illness, he grew up resisting the well-meaning, overprotective urges of his strong-willed mother and sister. Then, he meets Dorothy, a doctor, who has no interest in coddling him. They fall in love and establish a warm, workable marriage - until, one day, the unthinkable happens. A tree crashes into their house and Dorothy is killed.
Aaron struggles to absorb this crushing loss, sometimes regaining a measure of equanimity, sometimes brought to his knees with the sheer force of his grief and despair. Then, one day, Dorothy comes to visit, bringing comfort, but, also, an additional raft of worries. Is she real? Is he losing it? If she is real, why did she come back?
This is a gentle, sweet, realistic look at the grieving process, including both the stabbing, unbearable pain and the small-but-important things that can sneak up and hit unexpectedly. Aaron is a quirky and engaging, but also somewhat prickly and exasperating, especially in his interactions with those closest to him.
A few things I noticed that jarred slightly - Aaron does not seem thirty-five to me, more like fifty. Also, although the story is set in Baltimore, as another reviewer noted, it has a decidedly small-town feel. Some of the characters, like Peggy, seemed to be a bit "old-school" for their (presumed) age brackets. For instance, secretaries these days tend to do much more coordination and administration than caretaking. I was also mildly surprised at a small press that appeared to be doing well, without a mention of the recession. It felt like I was visiting a modern version of Brigadoon, with timeless characters and ageless problems. This is not necessarily a drawback, just something I noticed.
This is a refreshing, readable take on one of life's most important issues, one that I plan to keep and reread for many years to come. Recommended.
71 of 79 people found the following review helpful
Aaron Woolcott, a thirty-something editor at a family-run publishing company, has just lost his wife in a freak accident. Naturally, those closest to him -- his older sister Nandina, the handful of colleagues at Woolcott Publishing, and a few random friends -- reach out to him, fearing his emotional and physical deterioration. Although he's always felt he's been able to manage just fine, Aaron has a disabled arm and leg, thanks to illness as a toddler; and as he and his sister are the only surviving members of the immediate family, they've tended to be a bit reclusive. Now, as Aaron insists upon remaining in his nearly destroyed home all alone, the people in his life have reason to worry.
As Aaron struggles to cope and to adjust to his new life, he suddenly begins to see his dead wife Dorothy appearing. There is no pattern to her visits, making Aaron long to have her with him all the more. During these times, the two talk and discuss their life together. All the while, Aaron wonders what others see, and what they must think.
Having read all of Tyler's books to date, I feel qualified to compare this latest with its predecessors. Overall, while the characters are richly written and the premise holds promise, the story itself just didn't feel all that intriguing to me. There have been numerous works of fiction about people who lose their spouses, and this one just didn't stand out too keenly in my mind.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2012
For Anne Tyler fans (among whom I count myself), the arrival of a new novel of hers is a major literary event. Tyler's way of creating wonderfully quirky characters and placing them in universal life situations is probably what attracts so many of us to her work. Her fans know not to expect lots of action or overly complicated plots from her; the woman writes beautiful novels about people and what makes them tick. She has done it again with Aaron Woolcott and The Beginner's Goodbye.
Aaron Woolcott and his spinster sister, Nandina, run Woolcott Publishing, a company with two basic sources of revenue: what, before the advent of self-published e-books, was called "vanity publishing" and a long series of books for "beginners" that are even more dumbed-down than the real-world "for dummies" series that is so popular. Aaron has recently lost his wife in a tragic, fluke accident and is struggling to say goodbye. He badly needs to feel a sense of closure but, because Dorothy died almost immediately after an argument with him, Aaron is too filled with regrets to let her go. Thus, the title of the book.
The novel's self-description emphasizes how Aaron begins to see Dorothy at random intervals and places. Sometimes she speaks to him, sometimes she does not. Strangely, others often see Dorothy by Aaron's side, but they instinctively focus on Aaron and never acknowledge Dorothy's presence - even, it seems, to themselves. Surprisingly enough, despite the book blurb's emphasis on it, Dorothy's return plays a much smaller role in the story than one might expect.
The Beginner's Goodbye is about how one man comes to terms with his grief. I suspect that all of us handle grief somewhat differently and that we do not truly know ourselves until we are tested this way. Aaron prefers to handle it internally despite the number of sympathetic and loving co-workers and friends with which he is surrounded. It is easier for him to deny that he is suffering than to explain to his friends the level of grief he is feeling.
But, as he will learn, the world continues to evolve, people change, and new relationships are formed. I find that the first and last sentences of The Beginner's Goodbye perfectly encapsulate Aaron's story:
"The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted."
"We go around and around in the world, and here we go again."
This deceptively simple little novel has a lot to say about life and love. Anne Tyler fans will jump all over it. I hope that others less familiar with Tyler's work will not miss out.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Anne Tyler's new novel may at first seem unpromising, especially to readers who felt that her previous book, Noah's Compass, was an underwhelming echo of earlier and better work on similar themes. The Beginner's Goodbye is certainly reminiscent of other novels by Tyler. Aaron Woolcott, the awkward male protagonist whose life is changed by a terrible twist of fate, brings to mind Liam Pennywell (Noah's Compass) and Macon Leary (The Accidental Tourist); Aaron's involvement in a series of how-to books that are essentially upmarket versions of the "For Dummies" series recalls Macon's travel guides for travel haters. Even the title, and certain aspects of the theme, echo 2004's The Amateur Marriage. But such comparisons are only worth so much; in a career of nineteen novels over nearly fifty years, there are bound to be points of similarity. The Beginner's Goodbye may not break much new ground, but for those who admire Tyler's gently comic portraits of human eccentricity, it's a quick, enjoyable meditation on things left unsaid and the nature of an unusual relationship.
Mildly disabled and surrounded by a mother, a sister, and a female coworker who wanted to take care of him, Aaron was attracted to Dorothy in large part because she showed no interest in nurturing or coddling him. Their marriage is, if not brimming over with happiness, at least stable, until a tree falls into their house and kills her. Grief-stricken and barely able to function, Aaron moves back in with his sister at the old family home, and goes numbly through the business of putting his life back in order... until he begins to see Dorothy again. Will her appearances, whatever their source, give him a chance to move on and face the rest of his life?
Although Dorothy's return is the most striking element of the novel and is duly emphasized in the cover copy, it doesn't occur until about two-thirds of the way through; like much of Tyler's work, the book is defined not by the supernatural but by the natural, ordinary human foibles made more compelling by their tragic context. In theory, at least. The drawback of The Beginner's Goodbye is that Aaron's grief never feels as powerful as the novel wants it to seem; his reserved narration never conveys anguish, and nothing happens to make one feel he's having the particular trouble adjusting that the reader has been led to expect. It's not that grief has to be dramatic to be real, but that the basic process is not inherently as interesting as its significance and universality might lead one to believe, and that in the absence of deep emotional insight, descriptions of the familiar rituals of grief (the awkwardness of well-meaning friends, endless casseroles brought over by neighbors) often feel hollow. The reader still sympathizes with Aaron, but not thoroughly enough to make the novel unforgettable.
Nevertheless there is much to enjoy in The Beginner's Goodbye. The characterization is typically deft: traits and quirks recognizable from our everyday lives are combined in ways that make the protagonists resemble real human beings rather than quaint comic types, and Tyler's deep, wide-ranging sympathy is reserved enough that it feels genuinely humanistic, not cloying. Her eye for the type of mild comedy that emerges from quotidian social interactions enlivens the already brisk pace; Aaron and Dorothy's mutual oddness as revealed in flashbacks is endearing. And the quietly moving resolution reflects thoughtful consideration of the needs and uncertainties that run beneath an unconventional marriage like that of Aaron and Dorothy, the hard truths hidden by the amusing facade. It is those darknesses within lightness that make Anne Tyler's finest work powerful despite its sentimental qualities and its limitations in scope, and while The Beginner's Goodbye doesn't match her best fiction, it comes close enough to be more than worth the time it takes to read it.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2012
Anne Tyler has written many beautiful books. Now she is of a mature age -- retirement age in any other profession. I don't believe it is possible for a writer to retire; once a writer, one is doomed to be a writer to the end. So what does a publisher do when presented with yet another story from a celebrated, award-winning author? If she is smart, she publishes it. And what does the loyal reader do? She buys it, she reads it, and she sighs. Yes, the prose is perfect, the characters are well-drawn (but not sympathetic), the story is thin, but it flows, but it just isn't the same. It appears that Ms Tyler's peak performance is probably behind her. I hold out hope she will give us another soul-stirring masterpiece, but this wasn't it. As she continues to publish, I will continue to read, reading the story behind the material on the page; Ms Tyler is vulnerable to ravages of time as we all are. Is she beginning to say goodbye? Perhaps cranky reviews are evidence of my aging.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
One of the things I love most about Anne Tyler's novels are her first and last sentences. The first sentence in The Beginner's Goodbye is sure to evoke curiosity: "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted."
Okay, great hook. I couldn't possibly stop reading after that sentence, wanting to learn more about Aaron and how his wife, Dorothy, died - and, of course, why she returned. I wondered if Aaron was losing his mind or was this novel going to veer off into the supernatural. I won't disclose the answer here. You'll have to discover that for yourself. I hate those kinds of spoilers.
You'll be amply rewarded if you make the time to read this gem of a novel. It focuses on the mysteries of marriage and the secrets that may lie behind the heart of loss and grief but with some hilarious moments as well. As is typical of the author, the characters here have little quirks that seem both odd and somehow reassuring. Quirkiness becomes endearing. By the way, the last sentences in this book are as riveting as the first...but more about that later.
Even before his wife dies, while she is still in the hospital, Aaron felt "pitying looks and sympathetic murmurs" from other people. Perhaps he is particularly sensitive to pity because Aaron was left with a crippled arm and leg after a childhood illness. He has always been different. Tyler captures perfectly the surreal moments and the odd ways people can react after a death. No wonder Aaron can't wait to get away from them.
After he leaves the hospital, Aaron believes it will be a relief to go home, get out of public view, grieve in private, and notify Dorothy's brother of her death. He is also eager to return to work, to escape thinking about Dorothy constantly, to escape the constant reminders in his home.
Aaron works at Woolcott Publishing, a family business which was once known as a "gentleman's publisher", evolved to "private publisher" . The reality is that Aaron works for a "vanity press". Most (but not all) of the authors published through Woolcott pay for the privilege.
When Aaron's sales rep comes up with the notion of the "Beginner's" books, focusing on the basics of nearly any topic, a series is born. The Beginner's Spice Cabinet. The Beginner's Colicky Baby. The Beginner's Monthly Budget. And, of course, the novel itself, written only in the reader's mind and through Tyler's words: The Beginner's Goodbye. So perfectly resonant. How many of us are "experts" in letting go forever of those we love? In a sense, aren't we all beginners when it comes to accepting deep losses, let alone saying goodbye?
Even after I thought I knew where this novel was going, I was surprised by a later development. Aaron begins to reveal...at least for me...some perspective on why his wife returned and how that connects to their entire marriage. And now for those last sentences, ones that can only be understood by reading the entire book: ""Of course. We go around and around in this world, and here we go again." Whenever I read the final sentence in a Tyler novel, I never have the sense that she just decides she has found a "good enough" sentence but that she has spent a great deal of time thinking about how to conclude her works, to leave readers with something to ponder.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A freak accident kills Aaron Woolcott's forty-three year old wife, Dorothy, in Anne Tyler's "The Beginner's Goodbye." Although Aaron is still in his thirties, he behaves like an out-of-touch and irritable fuddy-duddy, who irrationally sticks to routines that no longer make sense. When friends, relatives (especially his overbearing older sister, Nandina), and neighbors express their concern and offer to help, he politely thanks them but consistently fends off their overtures. One day, Dorothy starts paying Aaron occasional visits. Has grief driven him over the edge, or can the departed somehow communicate with the living?
Anne Tyler is known for her offbeat characters, and Aaron is another Baltimore-based eccentric. Since early childhood, he has had "a crippled right arm and leg" and "a speech hesitation," but he makes light of his differences, is aggressively independent, and often forgets to use his cane. He doesn't allow anyone to get too close and, in addition, he is woefully weak in the empathy department. Aaron, who is six-feet four, may have fallen in love with and married Dorothy, an extremely short, squat, and businesslike doctor (who was also eight years his senior) because she was self-contained, sturdy, and low-maintenance.
"The Beginner's Goodbye" is a coming-of-age story about a man who, in some significant ways, has never grown up. Partly as a result of his conversations with the deceased Dorothy, Aaron begins to face some unpleasant truths about his attitude and behavior. With her trademark whimsy and compassion, Tyler explores the subtle nuances of human interactions. She also touches on the universal themes of living, dying, and grieving with rare wit and understanding. The author's upbeat and no-frills prose style, refreshingly original dialogue, and sensible take on serious issues make this an engaging and thought-provoking novel.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2012
While "The Beginner's Goodbye" follows much the same tune of "Noah's Compass", I kept rereading and combing the simplicity of it to locate the hidden depth and to see evidence of the novelist who plumbed those depths so abundantly in "Breathing Lessons", "Homesick Diner" and even the early "Celestial Navigation" and "Morgan's Passing". I felt that I was looking at a faded negative print of a once colorful picture, with some of the life washed out. I dearly love Tyler's work, and have for decades, but the quaintly eccentric characters are not supported enough by the thin plotline and the author may be relying too heavily on her established audience of faithful followers (myself,included)to fill in the blanks out of kind habit.Indeed it is a pleasant, noncommittal reading exercise... still, early on, I began wondering "Is this really 'my' Anne Tyler?" Please read "Beginner's Goodbye" perhaps as the closing note in a canon and then return back to revisit the earlier peals and swells.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Anne Tyler's latest, The Beginner's Goodbye, is fairly short -- only a couple hundred pages -- but it's a book that will have a greater than usual degree of resonance for me. I got caught up in the story of widower Aaron, whose late wife begins appearing to him months after her sudden death. Her appearances are not ghostly, as she has substance, can carry on a conversation, and is even seen by other people. Then the other people in Aaron's life began to interest me as well: coworkers at the private press where he is employed, the contractor in charge of renovating his house, and even his neighbors. Reading more, I recognized again Tyler's gifts as a writer. In my reading life, I've come to appreciate a writer who can tell a story effectively without an excessive amount of flowery language, and Anne Tyler is very skilled at that. Her characters' actions, thoughts, and words say much more than a big bunch of descriptive adjectives ever could. A scene in Beginner's Goodbye that illustrates this idea well is when Aaron retreats to his office during a Christmas party. Alone, after an over-solicitous officemate leaves, he finds himself eating a whole jar of cookies, immersing himself in the experience of each bite. Reading that, I wondered what his behavior meant, what it said about how he was handling his life situation at that moment. The scene also shows how Tyler's characters also act in unpredictable ways, something which keeps me invested in the story she's telling.