Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler writes novels about commonplace people who may be quirky or just mediocre; families that are deficient if not dysfunctional; and daily life in which nothing earthshaking generally happens. And yet she manages to give her characters reasons for self-examination. They second-guess choices, they have insights about themselves and their loved ones, they find hope.

In Back When We Were Grownups, Tyler's 15th novel, Rebecca Davitch is at 53 the matriarch of a large clan, most of whom aren't her blood relatives. There are three stepdaughters, a biological daughter, sons-in-law, grandchildren, and her husband's 99-year-old uncle. Rebecca husband, Joe, was killed in a car crash six years into their marriage, leaving her with four little girls, his widowed uncle, and a dilapidating old Baltimore row house where the family business, giving parties, is conducted.

Now, with everyone out of the house except Uncle Poppy, Rebecca is ruminating about the road not taken when she married Joe. Engaged to someone else when Joe swept her off her feet, Rebecca had been a promising scholar at 20. Now she never reads a book. Had she become the wrong person? Rebecca spends the rest of the book trying to answer that question. She tracks down the suitor she spurned. She doesn't have to look far — he's physics department chair at the college that they both attended and she abruptly left before graduating. Through their renewed companionship, Rebecca revisits the quiet, serious, studious young woman she remembers, inevitably comparing her with the jolly, party-giving family caretaker she became. The answer Rebecca has been seeking finally comes from Uncle Poppy at his 100th birthday party: "There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be."

Some readers find Tyler simplistic and sentimental, but Tyler's fans find her inspiring. Along with Tyler's characters, they refuel their own appetite for life.


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