Building Anne Tyler’s World

Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel is set, like most of her work, in a version of Baltimore that is less like the inner-city war zone mapped in The Wire or the jolly freak shows of John Waters than the paintings of Norman Rockwell and the films of Preston Sturges. Tyler’s white, middle-class characters inhabit houses roomy enough for the discarded furniture and the sentimental detritus of earlier generations. Courtships are conducted on front porches, neighbors besiege the bereaved with covered casseroles, clans convene for summer vacations at the shore. Her Baltimore, we may feel, is a place that no longer exists, if it ever did, except in her novels. Yet her fans will recognize it instantly, with all the satisfaction one associates with a pleasant recurring dream. It’s Baltimore as Brigadoon, a place whose residents leave rarely, often with difficulty, and sometimes at their own peril.

Beginning with If Morning Ever Comes (1964) and including The Accidental Tourist (1985), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Breathing Lessons, awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize, Tyler writes novels that could be called realistic but that are remarkably free of the sort of everyday detail that attaches a narrative to a specific time and place. No one dresses in the latest fashions, downloads the latest hits, or covets the most advanced electronic gadgets. Few people seem aware of, or worried by, world affairs or current events.

The songs that play in their heads are likely to be the music they enjoyed in youth; Abby Whitshank, the matriarch in A Spool of Blue Thread, is a child of the 1960s grown old whose favorite tune is still “Good Vibrations.” A widower attends his wife’s funeral in the shirt in which he got married; a widow asks the mourners at her husband’s burial to reprise the romantic ballads sung at her wedding. They follow careers (social work, construction) and work at businesses (restaurants, beauty parlors) that could have, and in some cases did, employ their parents. Even the preschoolers seem to be existing in some mythical, apple-pie American past.

Our sense that these characters could be found in any agreeable neighborhood at any point during the last half-century doesn’t necessarily diminish their credibility or the plausibility of the situations in which they wind up. It’s as if a certain vagueness is part of Tyler’s point, an aspect of her search for some sort of domestic essentialism. Her novels suggest that the most important aspects of family life—the rewards and stresses of marriage, the bonds and fractures uniting and separating parents and children, the loyalties and rivalries among siblings, the totemic significance of a house—have a permanence that transcends the particularities of time and place.

One thing Tyler’s fictive families share is the firm conviction that their own family is unique. The Whitshanks are proud of the singularity they ascribe to some highly specific combination of nature and nurture:

Like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their…

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