Book Discussion Recap #2
Tyler's novella was published in 2012, five years after the death of her husband. Tapping into how grief is fueled by unfinished business, she wrote this wish-fulfillment fantasy. As you'll see in the recap, this book ignited a non-stop hour of discussion. Many thanks to those who participated, and offline members.
Sophie Glazer: There are, thus, two ways to read this book: as a memoir of the sad business of dealing with the death of a beloved spouse, and as a wish-fulfillment fantasy: she’s dead, but she’s still there, all the same. Let’s start with the second. Is she there? He describes how in their casual encounters with neighbors, they can see her. Do they? Or is he deceiving himself?
AA: I wasn't convinced they they could see her, although he certainly thought so.
MM: Hmmmm. His neighbors never mention seeing her.
Sophie Glazer: True, they don't. Their responses seem to be perfectly appropriate responses to seeing Aaron alone, rather than Aaron with Dorothy.
JM: I wasn't convinced and it seemed she disappeared when other people were around.
MM: He actually says she does. In the beginning, he's angry about others sending her away.
JM: I forgot about the beginning, I was thinking about how he responded to vendor at the farmer's market.
DM: He wanted them to acknowledge what he knew and they became complicit in their compassion for him.
Sophie Glazer: Very true: she doesn't interact with anybody else, only with him. Her visitations seem to be entirely for him.
AA: But at one point he says that "they" met someone in the street who seemed to see her.
JM: I do remember him saying that people seemed surprised to see her.
Sophie Glazer Beautifully put: he needs their participation in his haunting; as though that participation makes it "real."
JM: I think that carried over to while she was living as well. Validation is an interesting aspect of relationship. Aaron seemed to crave that for Dorothy from his family, but I wasn't sure if she didn't receive it because of his reservations or because his mom/sister didn't approve of her way of caring for him (which he wouldn't let her do).
Sophie Glazer: "They" encounter the banker who had handled their mortgage application years before, and he says, "You two still enjoying the house?" To me that sounds like the standard boilerplate of somebody who doesn't really know the guy he's talking to, just has him pigeonholed as one of a couple of who got a mortgage.
MM:True! He assumes that means they were both seen.
JM: I think there's a powerful metaphor here related to experiencing the "presence" of the deceased.
KR: I am curious to know how the readers felt about his "seeing" Dorothy and their "conversations"?
JM: The conversations in the beginning of the book seemed more positive and affirming to him. As the story progressed the interactions seemed ladened with regret.
Sophie Glazer: Yes: as he grows in his understanding, and self-awareness, his sense of the unhappiness of the marriage, of the things that went awry, becomes stronger. As you say, laden with regret.
MH: Seems like he verges toward self-punishment & loneliness
KR: I thought the author dealt with that really well, the initial glorification of the person who died as if it was all perfect and then gradually the reality of what they had lived together.
JM: I felt bad for him towards the end, I could relate to not fully opening up.
MM: I was particularly touched by Dorothy's comment that he missed his opportunity and it was too late.
MH: What I found most interesting was how Aaron was able to compartmentalize his life into small sections much in the way that the books he edits are also small compartmentalized versions of a larger topic
JM: I imagine that's how he distances himself form the pain of loss.
MH: That resonated with me as well.
KR: Found that comment so sad - wish she hadn't shared that...Compartmentalizing is very common particularly in men who may not have the skills or the desire to open up.
MH: Yes, it is a challenge for "us"
JM: "Us," speak for yourself buddy. ;-)
MH: I was only speaking from personal experience ;) When you (Aaron) spend so much time pushing people away, it's hard to embrace kindness & warmth.
JM: Joking, can totally relate. In Aaron's case do you think it was not wanting to be vulnerable or wanting to seem able bodied?
MH: Believe revealing his vulnerability was incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
MM: I'm thinking it was how he saw himself. He says at one point that he hears his conversations as being clearer than they actually are.
JM: His speech impediment was confusing to me. At times it seemed much more pronounced and by the end of the book it seemed non-existent.
MM: I think it was how he saw himself... speaking clearly. Also, stammers/stutters are often more pronounced when the responses are high stakes. I also don't know that Tyler could have written the entire story in that voice style.
Sophie Glazer: Very true, JM. All the comments he encounters reflect the embarrassment of people who are aware they're talking to a bereaved person. How awkward it is to know what to say, or how to say it? Do we mention the deceased, or pretend we're not thinking about it?
JM: "Do we mention the deceased, or pretend we're not thinking about it?" That's always it for me, do I bring it up? My friend's teenage son died last spring, she basically told me it's always okay to bring him up because she's always thinking about him.
MM: He actually wonders why they don't acknowledge her. He brushes it off as others not liking/appreciating Dorothy.
JM: He doesn't paint a very sympathetic picture of her does he? At the same time, it seems that's what he wanted in a partner, someone who wouldn't be overbearing like his sister. I think this is one of my favorite parts of the book, actually. I can really relate to how fixed beliefs about other people and relationships can really taint our interactions.
Sophie Glazer: The recently bereaved seem to carry the ghost of the beloved around with them, and that ghost exerts a freezing effect on the most casual interactions.
KR: The recently bereaved often find it hard to accept their beloved isn't with them. Their "reality" gets stuck between what was and what is while other people only see the what is.
Sophie Glazer: KR that is beautifully put: that's really the essence of the book, isn't it? He re-shapes the most humdrum encounters into a form which confirms for him what he so desperately wants to believe--that Dorothy is still with him.
MM: And, there's his own not being sure what would be best. He never says anything about it to the awkward friends. Only snaps at them or out-waits them.
Sophie Glazer: Yes, he does seem irritable and cantankerous. Grief doesn't make people more likable, and Anne Tyler is very honest about that.
JM: He doesn't make her seem likable either, except towards the end he seems like he's realizing his perception of her was tainted by not letting her in. He seemed much older than he was.
MM: It's also good go-to reaction to kindness. He even acknowledged that.
Sophie Glazer: Perhaps we could move ahead to the change that JM describes: “When Dorothy and I hugged, all the wrong parts of us met. . .” When he describes their marriage honestly, it’s clear that they rub each other the wrong way, can’t find their way to arranging an anniversary dinner comfortably, quarrel over trivia like Triscuits, don’t understand each other. Think of how he describes their conversation just before their wedding: She had said, “Would you like me to wear a white gown? I could do that. I wouldn’t mind. I could ask if our receptionist would take me to this place she knows. I thought, maybe something, oh, not strapless or anything but maybe with a scoop neck, white but not shiny, not lacy, just a lustrous white, you know what I mean? And I was thinking a bouquet of all white flowers. Baby’s breath and white roses and . . . are orange blossoms white? I do know they’re not orange, although it sounds as if they would be. I’m not talking about a veil or anything. I’m not talking about a long train or anything like that. But something elegant and classic, to mark the occasion. You think?”
“Oh, God, no. Good Lord, No,” I said.
“We’re neither one of us the type for that, thank heaven,” I said
ES: In the beginning, I liked when he laughed at Dorothy being described as being shaped like a panda bear. I liked that he wasn't looking for a sexy woman. Later, though, I changed my mind about it all. It seemed loving at first. Later it seemed to be a sham.
JM: I'm not really sure what the motivation was in describing her physique like that, was he attracted to something else about her? Was he attracted to being wanted?
ES: He seemed to me at first to be attracted to her independence and intelligence. But later he seemed to realize that he liked that he didn't have to be burdened with her needs.
Sophie Glazer: "Sham" seems a little harsh, to me. I thought he truly loved her: somehow they couldn't figure out how to manage comfortably together. They needed a Beginner's Guide to Marriage.
JM: I questioned whether he really loved her at times (maybe he just needed a relationship). I think ultimately you're right, but it also highlights the moments of doubt in relationship and just how mundane the day-to-day is.
MM: LOL. And, more seriously, isn't that the of all our loves? We have ups and downs based on our own separate personalities.
JM: Anne Tyler really does a good job of capturing the daily rhythm of a relationship.
DM: I liked how ordinary everything in their lives seemed. Anyone who has been married for a while will recognize it. I think he truly loved her but had unresolved issues he needed to pursue to complete the relationship. I felt really sad for him, but I also felt like he made his peace with Dorothy.
AA: It seems to me that Aaron was attracted to Dorothy precisely because she was all about her work and wasn't focused on him, while he think everyone else is solicitous to the point of condescension. I have no doubt that he believed he loved her, but he was so walled off from everyone that he really didn't have a clue what a full loving relationship could be.
JM: The regret is heartbreaking.
MM: I think he loved her, and in hindsight realized he didn't always understand her.
KR: working through the relationship helped him undoubtedly with his relationship with Peggy.
Sophie Glazer: I was very moved by the end of the haunting, the way he returns to the things he had done wrong in the marriage--the pointless quarrelsomeness over where to go for their anniversary dinner, and his mean obliviousness to her desire for the white dress. one of the last things he says to her is to describe that anniversary dinner, if only he had done everything right: “We should have gone to Bo Brooks,” I said. “Who cares it it’s a crab house? We would have gotten all dressed up, you in the beautiful white gown you were married in and me in my tuxedo, and we’d eat out on the deck . . . “
DM: Don't we wish we could go back and "fix" things? If only we could rewind sometimes after we reflect back on how the relationship would have been had we only known. Fortunately, I think he grew through the relationship with Dorothy.
Sophie Glazer: At least, he grew AFTER the relationship with Dorothy.
ES: Maybe I'm just feeling mean tonight, but I found myself much more sympathetic to Dorothy than to Aaron.
MM: I wasn't sympathetic to either. I felt like an observer.
Sophie Glazer: His very final speech to her describes the happy anniversary dinner they should have had: "Dorothy was smiling, for real now, and her face seemed to be shining. In fact she was shining all over, and growing shimmery and transparent . . . " Up until that moment her visits to him had seemed so much the real Dorothy, so human and real, and now, even as he says the words "for real," she is dissolving, she is leaving him. At the very end he had come (the long way around) to understanding what he needed to be, what he needed to do. Too late for poor Dorothy, but didn't you get the feeling that he was going to be a very good husband to Peggy?
ES: Yes, I did. But it still wasn't fair to Dorothy.
Sophie Glazer: Alas, too true, ES.
JM: In his defense, I'm sure I wasn't the greatest partner at 24 in my first "real" relationship.
Sophie Glazer: Not any of us, I suspect, JM.
JM: Relationships are really hard.
MH: Am still working on being a good partner
KR: Both Dorothy and Aaron could have benefited from the beginner's guide to relationships or the beginner's guide to self awareness.
DM: Maybe he needed a Dorothy to understand Peggy and be a good partner and father.
JM: That's usually how relationships work if you're paying attention, at least in my experience.
Sophie Glazer: The Beginner's Relationship?
KR: His time living with Nandia also helped him grow as he watched the relationship with Gil blossom.
Sophie Glazer: Gosh yes, I do agree and we forgot to talk about Nandina and Gil!
AA: I love his reflections on the marriage, the conversations that were never had, what could have been. I also love that he wonders if Dorothy is upset that he liked Peggy's cookies, before it actually occurs to him that he is actually interested in pursuing Peggy.
Sophie Glazer: Peggy and her cookies! So different from Dorothy, but so very honest all the same. I loved Peggy's suggestion about the Beginner's Menopausal Wife.
DM: Actually, I thought it would be quite a good thing to give to out to husbands!
MM: I think he needed regret to understand that differences were okay. And, Dorothy didn't seem to speak up for herself much either.
DM: I think, at times, Dorothy is just oblivious.
AA: I think both Aaron and Dorothy were oblivious....
Sophie Glazer: Perhaps they both needed Beginner's Guides? The Beginner's Wife? The Beginner's Husband?
Sophie Glazer: MM, that's very true. After he shoots down her enthusiastic description of the lustrous wedding gown she wants, she meekly agrees: “We’re neither one of us the type for that, thank heaven,” I said.
“No, of course not,” she said.
JM: He always described her appearance as fairly disheveled. I was surprised when she suggested the wedding gown and he shot it down. What do you think his motivation was?
Sophie Glazer: Wasn't that a puzzling scene? I don't think he was being cruel: I think he genuinely didn't understand that she wanted the gown. I think he grasped that only in retrospect.
JM: The disagreement, about dinner, on their 5 year anniversary was very similar.
Sophie Glazer: Anne Tyler hints very strongly, of course, that the guide they really need is a guide to grief and loss: “But then I came fully awake and I thought, “Oh. She’s dead.” And it wasn’t any easier than it had been at the very beginning. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “I don’t know how. They don’t offer any courses in this; I haven’t had any practice.” Tyler is suggesting that somehow he needs to take a course in grief. He needs to practice.
DM: No one is ever really prepared for what grief does or even how to do it. That is what makes grief such an individual pursuit.
KM: And each 'season of grieving' we have offers more & different roads that we may not have experienced in previous losses. Even after we have grieved for many loved ones, there are still unknown (& scary) paths to take as we grieve a new loss.
Sophie Glazer: And oddly enough, his marriage to Dorothy, and his grief at her loss, constitutes a course, doesn't it? A course in how to be a better husband? How to build a better marriage?
At the end of the book he's a husband again, and a father. A better husband.
DM: Yes - he learned a lot from his marriage and the death of Dorothy. He grew. Aaron had to get over his self consciousness about his disability and become more comfortable in his own skin with it's difficulties before he could have a relationship with anyone. Whether the grief and loss helped him come to terms with his own challenges to overcome them and be willing to love unconditionally.
JM: He didn't stutter at the end did he?
DM: I think Anne Tyler was able to weave together intricate parts of love, loss and finding yourself through grief. She did a great job with the story and I loved the book.Sorry all, going to an advocacy meeting to help protect our Muslim neighbors and friends. Great book and loved the discussion.
Sophie Glazer: Good for you, DM!
Sophie Glazer: Perhaps it's time to move on to another aspect of this book. Anne Tyler drew much of this from her own experience. Her husband's death at a comparatively young age is reflected in this book, in the hospital scenes, and of course, the awkwardness of neighbors meaning well but not knowing what to say, and the exhausting business of having to learn how to be widowed. What did we think about this aspect of the book?
AA: She captures beautifully the awkwardness of the friends & neighbors, not knowing what to say, and saying the wrong things.
Sophie Glazer: All those casseroles! All those thank you notes! Everybody's trying so hard to do the right thing.
DM: I attended a grief seminar with David Kessler today. We discussed the awkwardness of family, friends etc. when dealing with someone who has lost someone. I believe, since we no longer have a personal touch with death (death in the home as opposed to a facility/hospital) that society has lost the ability to be accepting death as a part of life. We are very different as a society than our grandparents/great grandparents were when it comes to dealing with death and grief. I would say as an author Anne Tyler used her experience perhaps to put her own world into perspective.
Sophie Glazer: Critics have argued that Anne Tyler is a little too kind to her characters, that she creates nurturing families, loving homes, happy endings, wraps everything up too neatly. Is that true?
JM: This is the first book I've read that she's written. The characters seem like average people in my life.
Sophie Glazer: Her characters do have a very realistic daily texture, don't they?
DM: Yes - they are realistic and rather ordinary. This is also the first time I have ever read one of her books. I am interested in looking at more of them.
Sophie Glazer: "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" is one of my favorites.
MM: I liked the edgy relationship between the siblings, even though they clearly cared about each other.
Sophie Glazer: This book, like so many of Anne Tyler's books, includes a "created" family--the ad hoc relationships of the staff at the tiny publishing house, in this case, so much more resilient and involved than with Dorothy's own blood relatives.
I loved the way those well-meaning casseroles didn't nurture him, but Peggy's cookies did. Food was such a powerful signifier in this book. Peggy's tea with honey and Dorothy's triscuits really summed up all sorts of things about Peggy's sweetness, Dorothy's saltiness.
JM: Even though Peggy had known Aaron since the 1st grade she couldn't tell that he was complimenting her about the "stones" in the cookies.
Sophie Glazer: Yes, he needed to put some work into finding the right way to talk with Peggy. Isn't it interesting that he was ready to do the work? He had learned something from his failures with Dorothy. Anne Tyler's most recent book is called "Vinegar Girl," tells us whole volumes about the girl's character.
KM: I like being able to having a "permanent" record of comments -- this meeting was on my calendar for a month, but I had to deal with a last minute work issue last night & could not be on live with everyone. It's nice to be able to read & comment.
CM: Thank you all for participating, adding your voice and supporting positive culture change around death literacy. Please introduce your friends and colleagues to bevival, and invite them to join our book group. As you know, making a difference takes a village.
DM: Great! I am looking forward to the next read. I have just loved this group. So enjoyed this discussion Sophie. Looking forward to the next book. Thank you all!!!!!
AA: Thanks so much, Sophie! I loved this book, and I had never sampled an of Tyler's work before. Can't wait to get started on the next one.
NEXT LIVE DISCUSSION MARCH 15TH 8PM