I wonder how many people have finished an Anne Tyler novel and thought, "I could write like that," only to goggle at a blank piece of paper for an hour and then scratch out four or five doomed attempts. Imitating Anne Tyler is like bumbling around the local ice rink after watching Michelle Kwan: sure to make you feel stupid. The genius of Tyler's art lies in its illusion of artlessness.
And to some extent, Tyler's illusion of artlessness rests in the familiarity of her material. Most of her novels have focused on "ordinary" people: middle-class, secular suburbanites, a slice of America familiar to anybody with a television. But under the familiar surface of Tyler's writing flows the mingled currents of affection and pain that fill every human life: the universal drama of family love, the struggle to be loyal to one group of people over many years. Family turmoil is the hinge on which Tyler's stories swing: her characters strive toward and against one another, sometimes changing emotional direction within a single sentence. This is a private turbulence we all understand, never mind the many things that divide us. Fiction, at least, offers some catharsis.
Digging to America, Tyler's seventeenth novel, is another chronicle of families in flux. This time, though, she casts her gaze a little wider, bringing together two very different family cultures: the Donaldsons, her usual group of educated, white Baltimoreans, and the Yazdans, a young Iranian American couple who want very much to be all-American, to be "ordinary." The two families converge at the airport on the day they bring home their adopted Korean daughters, who arrive on the same plane. Tyler makes us spectators at a scene initially dominated by Donaldson relatives ...1
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The Ties That Bind
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