By Alex Clark, for The Guardian of 4 Feb 2015:
“Way back in 1986, when Anne Tyler had already written 10 novels, including perhaps her most admired, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, critic John Blades marshalled his arguments against “the heiress apparent to Eudora Welty as the earth mother of American writers”. We might grant him a little leeway and acknowledge the pervading cultural climate in which female novelists could see their work so smoothly slotted into the language of maternity, but there were graver accusations to come. Tyler, he announced, was America’s “foremost NutraSweet novelist”, her “annoyingly synthetic” fiction “seriously diluted by the promiscuous use of artificial sweeteners”; what she offered were “sedative resolutions to life’s most grievous and perplexing problems”.
“NutraSweet”, in this context, is worse than sugary; the sweetness isn’t even real, and may furtively do us harm. We think we’re being comforted, but in fact we’re being fooled. But although Blades’ attack was swaggeringly hyperbolic, the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike…
…The Whitshank family – Red and Abby, now in their early old age, and their two sons, two daughters and numerous grandchildren – cleave to the myth of family precisely because they lack an elaborate foundation story. Their “patriarch”, Junior, is Red’s late father, a carpenter who dreamed and schemed his way to establishing the family’s rather grand and much-admired house, which becomes central to both their story and the novel’s. The shortness of their family tree means “they didn’t have that many stories to choose from. They had to make the most of what they can get”, and such characteristics as they have managed to build up are pretty self-effacing: they pride themselves on not being melodramatic, and their tendency to pretend things are going to turn out fine even leads them to deny their own mortality. “Whitshanks didn’t die, was the family’s general belief. Of course they never said this aloud. It would have seemed presumptuous.” (Not to mention the fact that some of them have died already.)
Tyler gradually dismantles their myth-making, but she does so with a compassion that recognises that few of us will be immune to similar accommodations with the truth…
Traumatic episodes from the past are detonated at intervals, but their impact is muffled by the narrative’s apparent calm…This is the stuff of personal life, for sure, usually enacted in a domestic arena, and most likely familiar to us from some major or minor variation in our own lives. We are not reading the fiction of estrangement, or of disorientation, but its power derives from the restless depths beneath its unfractured surface.
What have the Whitshanks gained from their comforting myths, their refusal to be showy? Some things, Tyler insinuates, are worth being melodramatic about, and that we habituate ourselves to them is the sad part of the story. Perhaps we should be more like one of Abby’s “orphans”, the dispossessed and maladroit she takes pity on and opens her home to. One such, Atta, arrives at the worst possible moment and is still welcomed in. “Yes,” she says bombastically, in response to a polite question about her own background, “my family was exceptional. Everybody envied us.” Tyler, never short on mundane detail, describes her actions as she speaks: “She plucked a packet of NutraSweet from a bowl and held it close to her eyes, her lips twitching slightly as she read the fine print.” A lesson to us all: ignore the fine print at your peril.”