"You belong just as much as I do", says a quintessentially American character to an Iranian-born, naturalized citizen in Anne Tyler's Digging to America. We all think the others belong more. This conundrum of identity is at the center of this quietly subversive 17th novel from the divinely gifted Pulitzer Prize winner. What does it means to be American, to belong in a nation where cultural differences are given public lip service but can just as likely be used to separate us from our neighbors? Tyler offers no easy answers. She has always been the subtlest of writers, plumbing the ordinary for flashes of truth about the human condition. She often employs that Jamesian technique of allowing major events to play out offstage, suggesting that it is not the dramatic moments that matter, but the way the consequences of those moments insinuate themselves into and ineluctably alter our day-to-day lives. Digging to America, which spans six or seven years in the lives of two families, does not harp on its one quiet (offstage) death, or one character's cancer scare, and even the events of September 11, 2001, are given only passing mention. And yet each of these occurrences will claim its space alongside the more mundane in the patchwork of the characters' lives.
The story begins in the Baltimore airport, where two unacquainted families have gathered to welcome the arrival of the Korean baby girls they are adopting. The sprawling, boisterous Donaldson clan has usurped most of the cramped gate area with their balloons and banners. The three far more reserved members of the Yazdan family wait virtually unnoticed for their own baby. This chance meeting at a momentous time will tie these two families together, making them the unlikeliest of close friends. When Bitsy Dickinson-Donaldson, a somewhat overbearing, if good-hearted Ÿber-mom, hits on the idea of an Arrival Day party to celebrate the day the girls came to America, it turns into an annual event that cements their bond, and provides the narrative line for the novel.
American-born Sami Yazdan and his Iranian-born wife, Ziba, assimilate comfortably into the Donaldson's animated world. Ziba, in fact, hangs on every one of Bitsy's autocratic pronouncements on proper parenting. But Sami's mother, Maryam, is less at ease in the other family's suffocating embrace. Though she finds the Donaldsons fascinating and inherently kind, their unabashed American-ness is somewhat off-putting. Maryam, who has lived in the U.S. for almost 40 years and is a citizen, nonetheless remains acutely aware of her own foreignness. So, no one is more surprised than she when she is courted by Bitsy's widowed father and, against her inclinations, yields to his charms. But her inability to concede her feelings will threaten the two families' imperfect harmony.
While Maryam becomes the centerpiece of Digging to America, the other Yazdans and Donaldsons have their parts to play, each offering a different window onto the balancing act that their friendship often demands. The two Korean girls, each becoming quite different but singularly American, serve as constant reminders of the messy amalgam that makes up each of our identities. Tyler, whose late husband was Iranian, clearly understands the intricacies of that culture, and she neither exalts its virtues nor whitewashes its faults, offering instead a welcoming depiction of both its charms and idiosyncrasies. And along with her primary examination of the American character, she provides a secondary, but no less potent mediation on the personal process of grieving.
Anne Tyler is so wise in her observations, so adept in her delineation of ordinary lives, and so compassionate in her human understanding, that a reader would be hard pressed not to find some aspect of his or her own life in the pages of her work. As she has done throughout her enviable career, this master of the domestic novel offers us a deceptively gentle, indelible vision of the way we really live.
Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.