Anne Tyler is good at grief. In an unsentimental way, she deftly conveys every bit of sadness, remorse, confusion and anger that a bereft father or betrayed husband or amnesiac old man invests in the most ordinary expression or mundane activity. In her new brief novel, grief is the occasion but also the subject of the story.
Aaron, an editor at a vanity press (which also publishes a Beginner's series -- "something on the order of the Dummies books but without the cheerleader tone of voice"), has lost his wife in an unlikely accident, and this book is, yes, his Beginner's Goodbye. And Aaron has an extended opportunity to say goodbye to his wife, Dorothy, because, shortly, she begins to visit him.
It's all very sweet and sober and, in Tyler's way, matter-of-fact: "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how people reacted." As Aaron recounts these appearances, in which his dead wife sometimes talks to him, even tells him things he didn't know, he also describes the life that her death disrupted, little by little giving us a full picture of his world before and after Dorothy.
While his house, also a casualty of the accident that killed his wife, is undergoing repairs, his understanding of his marriage seems to be subject to a similar sort of reconstruction. What begins as a somewhat whimsical account of mourning and recovery becomes, gradually, a deeper and more complex re-evaluation of what, precisely, Aaron has lost. The grief, it turns out, is not only for Dorothy, but for the marriage that was not what it might have been, should have been, and at first seemed to be.
And oh, it is easy to read. Aaron is Tyler's typically congenial narrator, thoughtful, mostly plainspoken, occasionally wry. In his story, everyone feels like family, or at least like neighbors and friendly acquaintances. "Think of when you're threading your way through a crowd with a friend," he says of his dead wife's visits, "how, even if you don't look over, you somehow know your friend is keeping pace with you. That's what it was like with Dorothy." And that's what it's like reading "The Beginner's Goodbye," with Anne Tyler's quiet presence moving us gently toward an understanding of how much of death we let into our lives.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin. She teaches in the Fairleigh-Dickinson MFA program.