“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyle (Alfred A. Knopf, 208 pgs., $24.95)
When you pick up a novel by Anne Tyler, you can expect certain things. It will be set in Baltimore. It will follow families populated by out-of-step characters ranging from the slightly odd to the wildly eccentric, whose actions, or non-actions, are motivated by a need for love and tangible sense of self; this need is sometimes conscious, sometimes not. It will have a provocative, often seemingly contradictory title — “The Accidental Tourist,” “Saint Maybe,” “The Amateur Marriage,” “Breathing Lessons.” It will be a pleasure to read.
“The Beginner’s Goodbye,” Tyler’s 19th novel, features all of these things and more — there is a ghost — and less; just over 200 pages, it is, both in literal weight and narrative complexity, lighter than most of the Tyler canon. Which should not be construed as “less,” at least not in the pejorative sense of the word.
In many ways, “Goodbye” feels like the center slice of an Anne Tyler novel, a distillation. The plodding horse/eccentric main character here is Aaron Woolcott, whom Tyler has endowed with symbolism both physical and professional. Aaron works at the vanity press his great-grandfather established, publishing, among other things, a series of books aimed at beginners: “The Beginner’s Guide to Wine,” “The Beginner’s Book of Dog Training.”
Hence this book’s title, and hence its almost novella-like nature, at least in comparison with Tyler’s other works, which often span decades and generations. “The Beginner’s Goodbye” confines itself to months, specifically the months following the death of Aaron’s wife, Dorothy. The two are in the middle of an ordinary marital moment when a tree falls on the house, inflicting wounds on Dorothy from which she eventually dies and wounds on Aaron from which he eventually learns how to live.