Pulitzer Prize-winner herself, Anne Tyler is a champion of holy losers, if not outright fools. Many of her novels (this is her 15th) read like blow-by-blow rundowns of extended family reunions at which all parties seem determined to present their worst or at best, most eccentric behavior. Rebecca ("Beck") Davitch, the accidental matriarch at the hub of this Baltimore clan, finds herself at 53 with a grown brood three mildly squabblesome stepdaughters and their extended households, along with her own daughter, now on her third husband-and-child combo and a resident 99-year-old uncle-in-law, plus an in-home party business to run out of a grand, if deteriorating brownstone, the Open Arms. Beck's problem, oddly, is not overextension, but a gap at the core: the one thing achingly missing from her life is her husband, Joe, who died only a few years after sweeping her into this maelstrom. Her midlife crisis, when it comes, is one of identity slippage. She's perfectly clear or thinks she is on who she was at 21, when Joe mistook her for a "natural-born celebrator," thus typecasting her into the role she has occupied for the past three decades. But who is she now? Has she inadvertently strayed from her "true real life," the one she was meant to have?We all wonder from time to time about the road not taken. In Beck's case, a seemingly portentous dream about the son she might have had with Will Allenby, her childhood-unto-college sweetheart, prompts her to look him up to often awkward, sometimes hilarious effect. A carefully staged meeting with his resentful teenage daughter is a modern classic. Beck's family is far more accepting of this potential rekindling: indeed, her mother, an old-fashioned passive-aggressive whose every innocuous comment bears a barbed reproach, is outright ecstatic. Will Beck find the lost segments of her younger self by reconnecting with this phantasm from her past? The reader will quickly form a fervid opinion as to whether she should. Meanwhile, Tyler's latest entertainingly refutes Tolstoy's dictum that happy families are all alike.
Sandy MacDonald is incubating a family compound on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts.