A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Jeremy Pauling is a bachelor with a passion for making sculptures out of odds and ends, and a terror of beautiful women. So, when his new lodger, Mary Tell, arrives, Jeremy is faced with a challenge he really can’t handle …
This is a quiet and lyrical novel which crept up on me and simply wouldn’t let go. I also have to say that it’s one of the most devastating and probably the best of the Anne Tyler novels I’ve read and I was weeping like a child at one or two moments throughout the story and then again at the end. Usually Tyler gives us some brightness and hope, but here she lets the difficulties and unhappy moments of life have their say, to the fullest effect. It’s powerful stuff, and I’m not usually one to weep, which just goes to show how darn powerful it is. After all, I thought Love Story was funny; but this is really not.
That said, there are lighter moments of pleasure in this multi-viewpoint book which are also well worth reading. I particularly loved the fact that Tyler had the courage to start off the novel with a family funeral and, far more importantly, with Amanda, Jeremy’s sister, who’s not a nice character at all, but who says some very rich and humorous things:
You hear people say at funerals, “How natural she looks! As though she were asleep.” And most of the time they are telling a falsehood, but in Mother’s case, it was absolutely true. Of course she looked natural; why not, when she went through life looking dead?
Amanda, though a nasty piece of work, does help to give us the outsider view – the context or environment where Tyler allows her two off-the-wall characters, Jeremy and Mary, to live – and we’re going to need that as the worlds of Mary and Jeremy are either offbeat or distinctly strange, in Jeremy’s case. Mind you, in a social context, what we see here in a novel set in the 1960s and early 1970s is the contrast of the old world view (Amanda) and the new changing mores (Mary), but even Mary has the new ways forced upon her due to circumstances and does not on the whole seek them out herself. We meet her as a runaway wife in the process of being deserted by another man, whilst all the time Jeremy is falling in love with her. Her voice is a very strong and achingly direct one and remains so throughout. Here she is recalling the time she met the man who would become her husband:
His kisses tasted of tobacco. I had never been kissed before and found it tiring; my neck ached and my mouth felt bruised. Drawing back from me, he would smile with his eyes half-veiled as if he had won some contest. I was the loser, and I didn’t even know I was in a contest.
In many ways, even though Jeremy, as one of the two main characters, has several sections to himself, this is a novel of the womenfolk. I didn’t feel entirely settled with Jeremy, though his sections are beautifully written and we see the inside world of mental illness and artistic genius very clearly. I suspect however that I’m supposed to feel edgy and strange (well, edgier and stranger than normal) as Jeremy is simply very odd and his worldview very unsettling:
That was the way his vision functioned: only in detail. Piece by piece. He had tried looking at the whole of things but it never worked out. He tried now, widening his eyes to take in the chilly white air below the skylight and the bare yellow plaster and splintery floors. The angles of the walls raced toward each other and collided. Gigantic hollow space loomed over him, echoing. The brightness made his lids ache.
In terms of the characters, I wasn’t really sure about the young girl, Olivia, as I felt she was too out-of-place in a novel which felt as if its focus was always on the older folk (though Mary is actually quite young in real terms). It’s also difficult as she’s introduced quite late on in the text and then isn’t seen again (much like the sister at the beginning though Olivia’s influence is less demanding) and I wondered if her section might have been better conveyed by elderly spinster Miss Vinton.
Speaking of which, I totally loved Miss Vinton, who has a heart for compassion and an astute eye for the ebbs and flows of the relationships between characters. Not only does she see things others don’t pick up on, but she tries to find ways to make them right again where they’ve gone wrong, in such a subtle way that no-one knows she’s doing it. I loved her, and would easily have welcomed several more sections in her viewpoint. And I can also of course very much sympathise with Miss Vinton’s thoughts about the necessity or not of company:
If you were to shake me awake in the middle of the night and say, “Quick, without thinking: What is the most important thing in the world?” I would say, “Privacy.” I know that’s not right; you don’t have to tell me. I know that the true answer is probably love, or understanding, or feeling needed – even for me. But I am telling you what comes to mind first, and that’s privacy. Sitting alone in a room reading a book, with no one to interrupt me. That is all I ever consciously wanted out of life.
Ah, a woman after my own heart indeed. But it’s the interplay between Mary and Jeremy that is the true centre of this book – the story of an unlikely but believable marriage of opposites, how it works, and how it does not, gripped my attention all the way through. Here is Jeremy just after he’s proposed, again:
“What hope do you have for a better life, if you keep on saying no to everything new?” But he was speaking mainly to himself now, offering himself consolation, and he had already turned to go. He saw the dining room lit into color from Mary’s doorway, a clump of dusty strawflowers turning orange on the table. Then her face appeared in his mind as it had looked at the moment of his turning – the smile fading, the eyes suddenly darker and more thoughtful. He turned back again. Mary took a breath, and he knew from the sudden shock and panic flooding through him that she was about to say yes.
Later in the novel, Mary’s final decisions about the relationship with Jeremy and what she does is both devastating and again totally believable, especially in the way Tyler shows how life-changing decisions are made not proactively but in reaction to other stimuli and without really wanting them to happen at all. Both when one looks at Mary and when one looks at Jeremy as well. These are two people drawn together by luck and timing and separated by the same.
Which is why the very downbeat and bleak ending is just so devastating. I’d invested time and energy in this story and it kept on making me think. In fact, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I still can’t. It’s one I can really recommend very highly indeed as quality Tyler but with a distinctively bitter and ultimately empty edge, but you do need to be emotionally strong in order to get the most out of it. Be prepared therefore, but do read it.
Celestial Navigation, Vintage 1996, ISBN: 0-09-948011-5
[Anne is a great admirer of any writers with Anne as a first name – spelled correctly of course – and only wishes she had as much style as The Great Tyler. For more edgy bitterness and despair, please click here.]