"Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person." So Anne Tyler opens this irresistible new novel.
The woman is Rebecca Davitch, a fifty-three-year-old grandmother. Is she an impostor in her own life? she asks herself. Is it indeed her own life? Or is it someone else’s?
On the surface, Beck, as she is known to the Davitch clan, is outgoing, joyous, a natural celebrator. Giving parties is, after all, her vocation—something she slipped into even before finishing college, when Joe Davitch spotted her at an engagement party in his family’s crumbling nineteenth-century Baltimore row house, where giving parties was the family business. What caught his fancy was that she seemed to be having such a wonderful time. Soon this large-spirited older man, a divorcé with three little girls, swept her into his orbit, and before she knew it she was embracing his extended family plus a child of their own, and hosting endless parties in the ornate, high-ceilinged rooms of The Open Arms.
Now, some thirty years later, after presiding over a disastrous family picnic, Rebecca is caught un-awares by the question of who she really is. How she answers it—how she tries to recover her girlhood self, that dignified grownup she had once been—is the story told in this beguiling, funny, and deeply moving novel.
As always with Anne Tyler’s novels, once we enter her world it is hard to leave. But in Back When We Were Grownups she so sharpens our perceptions and awakens so many untapped feelings that we come away not only refreshed and delighted, but also infinitely wiser.
From the Hardcover edition.
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The first sentence of Anne Tyler's 15th novel sounds like something out of a fairy tale: "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." Alas, this discovery has less to do with magic than with a late-middle-age crisis, which is visited upon Rebecca Davitch in the opening pages of Back When We Were Grownups. At 53, this perpetually agreeable widow is "wide and soft and dimpled, with two short wings of dry, fair hair flaring almost horizontally from a center part." Given her role as the matriarch of a large family--and the proprietress of a party-and-catering concern, the Open Arms--Rebecca is both personally and professionally inclined toward jollity. But at an engagement bash for one of her multiple stepdaughters, she finds herself questioning everything about her life: "How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who's not really me?"
She spends the rest of the novel attempting to answer these questions--and trying to resurrect her older, extinguished self. Should she take up the research she began back in college on Robert E. Lee's motivation for joining the Confederacy? More to the point, should she take up with her college sweetheart, who's now divorced and living within easy striking range? None of these quick fixes pans out exactly as Rebecca imagines. What she emerges with is a kind of radiant resignation, best expressed by 100-year-old Poppy on his birthday: "There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be." A tautology, perhaps, but Tyler's delicate, densely populated novel makes it stick.
Yes, Poppy. There are also characters named NoNo, Biddy, and Min Foo--the sort of saccharine roll call that might send many a reader scampering in the opposite direction. But Tyler knows exactly how to mingle the sweet with the sour, and in Back When We Were Grownups she manages this balancing act like the old pro she is. Even the familiar backdrop--shabby-genteel Baltimore, which resembles a virtual game preserve of Tylerian eccentrics--seems freshly observed. Can any human being really resist this novel? It is, to quote Rebecca, "a report on what it was like to be alive," and an appealingly accurate one to boot. --James MarcusFrom the Back Cover:
“This novel is a treasure, a jubilant look at a woman who embarks on a modern search for herself with style, grace, and, yes, celebration.”
–The Miami Herald
“One does not so much read a Tyler novel as visit it. Her ability to conduct several conversations at once while getting the food to the table turns the act of reading into a kind of transport. . . . In a literary landscape that too often mistakes sarcasm for humor and self-reference for irony, an Anne Tyler novel, brimming with the real thing, calls for a toast.”
–San Francisco Chronicle
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