“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Seeing Other People” by Mike Gayle (2014)

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seeingotherpeople“A loud noise.”

And so we begin the year by revisiting one of my favourite authors. I’ve only actually reviewed Mike Gayle on here once before, but with the completion of this I’ve now read all but one of his books (Turning Forty is still absent from my ‘completed’ list). His books are the equivalent of a pint and a packet of peanuts down the local with your mates – comfortable, fun and good for a laugh – but they all have a harder edge too, dealing with the harsh realities of life that never goes the way we want it to.

Seeing Other People begins with journalist Joe Clarke waking up in a bed that definitely does not belong to him with a woman who is definitely not his wife. Unfortantely for him, he can’t remember anything about how he got there. The last thing he remembers is that he was on his way home and an intern at his office, Bella, was texting him, asking him to meet her. And apparently he did, and it’s now the morning after the night before and it appears he cheated on his wife, Penny.

He skips around the truth for a few months and vows to be a better husband and father than ever before, saying that it was just one night. But then his ex-girlfriend Fiona appears, over-perfumed and as antagonistic as ever before. She tells him that he didn’t cheat after all, but that isn’t the most alarming thing about this: it’s that Fiona is dead. And if she’s dead, why can Joe see her? Joe begins to wonder if he’s having a breakdown and he must decide whether to admit all to Penny or let it go.

Gayle writes with such a casual style that it just flows easily and you get caught up in the drama. He is a master of telling stories that show you don’t need robots, aliens, werewolves or magic to make a story great – you can do it with a simple domestic incident. His characters have always been interesting, fully rounded and just as prone to making mistakes as you or me. Gayle really gets into the mindset of his characters and is very skilled at writing relationships, exploring how they grow from strength to strength or wither if not given enough attention. There’s a romance here, certainly, but it is also excellent to see him tackle male friendships, a subject that there often seems to be a lack of. It’s nice to see blokey sorts sitting around and discussing their problems. I think it’s seen more as a female thing to do, but men do it just as much.

The supernatural elements of the novel are more the B-story and far from dominate the page. This is a good thing. If memory serves, this is the first of his books to introduce a plot point like this, but it’s been years since I read his earlier stuff so I can’t be sure. (I’m thinking now that I might have to re-read all of his back catalogue once I’m done with Coupland and Rowling…) Fiona isn’t a particularly nice character, but nonetheless she retains a frightening believability. Joe is someone that you’d happily go for a curry with, which I think is standard in Gayle’s work. His main characters are all flawed but tend to be genuinely nice people, as I think most people are, in reality.

Probably not my absolute favourite of his books (I still think that’s Brand New Friend) but definitely in the top three and an excellent way to start the new year.

If, however, you do fancy something with magic and mystery in it, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, and help keep me in wine for another year!