Aaron and Dorothy may have seemed an odd couple to family, neighbors and co-workers. Aaron, crippled in his right arm and leg by a childhood illness and plagued by sporadic stuttering, runs the family vanity publishing business, whose biggest success to date is a series of “Beginner’s” books—The Beginner’s Wine Guide, The Beginner’s Monthly Budget or, most recently, The Beginner’s Book of Birdwatching. Something on the order of the Dummies books, Aaron feels, but “more dignified.” Dorothy was a doctor: “work-obsessed,” according to Aaron’s sister, Nandina; she left early for the office, stayed late and “barely knew how to boil an egg.” And yet, as Aaron recalls after Dorothy’s sudden death at the hands of a fallen oak tree, they were “happily, unremarkably married.”
After her death, Aaron feels as if he’s been “erased,” or “ripped in two” . . . until he begins getting visits from Dorothy. At first he’s afraid to speak, worried she will leave if he does. But gradually he engages her in conversation—asking if she’s happy, if she misses being alive—even revisiting some of their ancient and petty arguments. But he also realizes they really loved each other, even if each of them was somehow unable to demonstrate that love when they had the chance.
Anne Tyler’s novels (this is her 19th) have often been peopled with eccentric male characters. In 1974’s Celestial Navigation, it was Jeremy, a loner who crafted intricate paper collages for a living; Macon in The Accidental Tourist (1985) was a travel writer who hated traveling; and Liam, in 2010’s Noah’s Compass, was a would-be philosopher who taught fifth grade at a second-rate private elementary school.
Aaron joins this celebrated group, portrayed with Tyler’s signature quirky humor and her gift for drawing her characters into awkward situations all too uncomfortably familiar to every reader. Peripheral characters enrich the mix, including the ever-pragmatic Nandina, and their secretary, Peggy, a “pink-and-gold person with . . . a fondness for thrift-store outfits involving too many bits of lace,” both of whom alternately try to nurture Aaron and chide him for his inability to move on. This glimpse into personal loss limned with an unexpectedly bright future will be welcomed by Tyler’s many admirers.