The hero and narrator of Anne Tyler’s new novel is so reminiscent of Macon Leary—the hero of her biggest hit, The Accidental Tourist—that it’s strange she didn’t just call him “Macon Leary” and make The Beginner’s Goodbye a sequel. Macon, a shy, reticent man who authored a series of guidebooks for reluctant travelers, moved in with his siblings while grieving for his son, the victim of a senseless murder. Beginner’s Aaron Woolcott, who works as an editor at his family’s vanity press, is a shy, reticent man who moves in with his overbearing sister while grieving for his wife, the victim of a freak accident.
The bread and butter of Aaron’s family business is a series of successful how-to guides, the Beginner’s books, which he describes as similar to the “Fill-in-the-blank for Dummies” books, but “more dignified.” (When someone suggests Aaron consult one of his own publications for advice on his home-repair situation, he’s startled: “Those books,” he says, “are not meant to be used.”) Macon Leary was one of those people who seem kind of old from birth, and Aaron, a gangly man who walks with a cane and has traces of white in his hair, is meant to be in his 30s, but comes across as much older. It’s a shock when he mentions having been a U2 fan in high school.
Aaron is finally pulled out of his contemplative funk by a series of ghostly visitations from his wife, Dorothy. Tyler treats these moments, which could be Aaron’s self-therapeutic fantasy, with the matter-of-fact dryness of one of Russell Baker’s more surreal fantasies in his old op-ed column for The New York Times. Clearly, Aaron needs to come to terms with something before he can move on, and it’s a bracingly unsentimental touch that part of what he needs to deal with is his dawning realization that, even though he and Dorothy loved and supported each other, their marriage wasn’t really happy. There’s no special reason for that: It’s just the breaks.
That’s a sad, grown-up insight at the core of a book that’s most memorable for its saddest touches, such as a description of Aaron going through the gifts of food sent by family and friends, and dutifully recording who sent what before dumping it all in the garbage. Or the scene when he visits the comatose Dorothy in the hospital for what turns out to be the last time: “The cords and hoses had been removed and she lay uncannily still. I had thought she was still before, but I had no idea.” But for all its grace notes, the novel is too slight and uneven to survive its final pages, when Tyler wraps everything up too neatly. She diminishes the best parts of her book by turning it into an inspirational seminar. It could be sold in hospital gift shops, with a picture of Ziggy on the cover.