Anne Tyler considers Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant her best novel, and I can see why. Channeling his protagonist Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger says, "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." There’s no ego present in Tyler’s writing, so when I finished Homesick, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to phone the author herself, but I had a driving desire to keep in touch with all her characters. I’d attempt to classify each of them for you here (flighty father, strict mother, rebellious son, meek son, impatient daughter,) but what makes the characters so real is that they’re more than their adjectives. Tyler’s masterful third person narration rotates with each chapter so we see things from several characters’ perspectives. At first, the mother Pearl is a sympathetic character, but when we’re shown things from one of her children’s perspectives, she turns into a monster. Then it switches back to her perspective and she’s a human being again. Just like real life.
As days have passed since I finished the book, I realize it’s not so much that I want to befriend these characters, but that I’ve known them all along. The fictional Tulls are, sadly, a family we all know: a single mom trying to raise three kids after her husband abandons the family. Having divorced parents myself, the Tull’s family dynamics resonate within me qualities I recognize from my family of origin. The tense moments of silence within the house punctuated by enraged voices. The children wondering what they did to cause their daddy’s absence. The parents wondering where it all went wrong.
The difference between the Tull family and most families of divorce today is communication. Today people are encouraged to talk about their feelings, whether privately as a family, or with a therapist as a referee. If Daddy leaves, family discussions help everyone deal with the trauma. In Homesick, which spans the decades from the 1930s to the 1970s, Pearl refuses to talk to her children about their father’s absence. One night her husband Beck tells Pearl he’s leaving, and she adapts by pretending he’s just away on a long business trip. This denial and secrecy exacerbate an already traumatic event, and we see the effects played out through each family member for generations.
The most heartbreaking character for me is Jenny, because her potential for great love and happiness is thwarted by obedience to her mother and blind adherence to convention. She avoids her feelings for a boy because of her mother’s belief that he is beneath them. Jenny eventually marries a man who looks good on paper, but soon finds he’s a control freak like her mother. In one scene, while Jenny is considering divorcing him, she takes refuge in her mother’s home even though the abuse she suffered as a child there contributes to her unhappy marriage. I wanted Jenny to escape her past, but, like so many of us in real life, she returns to what’s familiar. “She was safe at last, in the only place where people knew exactly who she was and loved her anyhow.” Tyler explores this theme further along in the story when Jenny, then a frustrated single mother, finds herself resorting with her daughter to the same violent outbursts she witnessed from her own mother. Who does Jenny turn to for help? Her mother, of course.
***warning spoiler alert***
In the end, Beck returns. While explaining his absence to the oldest son Cody, who had always blamed his rigid mother for driving his father away, Beck sums up the magnificent ambiguity of the book itself, “What it was, I guess; it was the grayness, grayness of things; half-right-and-half-wrongness of things. Everything tangled, mingled, not perfect any more. I couldn’t take that. Your mother could, but not me. Yes sir, I have to hand it to your mother.” Leave it to a superlative storyteller such as Tyler to choose the least sympathetic character to reflect upon the elusiveness of blame and the importance of forgiveness.