The Beginner’s Goodbye: A Novel by Anne Tyler (Knopf, $24.95, 208 pages; Random House Audio, $35.00, Unabridged on 6 CDs)
What we have here is (a) failure to communicate. Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke
Aaron Woolcott has led a life full of physical challenges. A childhood illness left him with a crippled hand and leg. Moreover, his sister, Nandina, has been overly protective of him. Aaron reacts to her babying by retreating into a defensive and self-reliant personal style. He rejects tenderness and caring which leads him to be attracted to a brusk oncology radiologist who seemingly lacks a softer side. They meet in a work-related situation which sets the stage for further discussions and interactions.
The Woolcott family’s publishing house features a series of books – The Beginner’s Guide, similar to, but less ambitious than, the popular Idiot’s Guide books. The Beginner’s Guides are aimed at readers who want to skim the surface of a simplified topic or activity, such as hosting one’s first dinner party. Aaron is doing background work on a new title about cancer treatment patients when he interviews Dr. Dorothy Rosales. He is smitten right away when Dorothy comments on his physical condition in a clinical way. Although Aaron could easily be portrayed sympathetically, there is something off-putting about him that becomes more evident as the story unfolds.
Author Tyler takes the theme of miscommunication and focuses on the way that Aaron’s approach to life has stifled and limited the relationship that he and Dorothy have shared during their marriage. His family and work relationships have suffered as well. Too often, what we experience within ourselves is not always in sync with what others are feeling and thinking.
As is her forte, Anne Tyler turns an accidental death into a humbling tale of grief and recovery for Aaron. The large oak tree outside their home’s sunroom falls through the roof onto Dorothy as she sits at her desk. Aaron is powerless to help her and the tree becomes the catalyst for the story. Sometime after her death, Dorothy appears to Aaron as though she’s still alive. This is not a new story device and, not surprisingly, Tyler uses it as a way to force Aaron to confront reality. There are many lessons that each of the characters learns as he or she examines the way Dorothy’s death has triggered recovery efforts, both emotional and physical.
The audio book features Kirby Heyborne, a veteran actor who portrays Aaron in a very convincing manner. This reviewer found the story to be the usual low-keyed take on life’s challenges that Anne Tyler is considered one of the best at writing. It is almost too slowly paced; however, Tyler is a master at drawing in the reader so that she has the opportunity to thoroughly make her case for living a fully-conscious life.
The audiobook version of The Beginner’s Goodbye was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.