"The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted."
As opening lines go, that one - from The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler - is nothing if not strong, but what follows it is not a sensational story by any means, just a beautifully low key, understated novel about love and marriage and their ups and downs.
Aaron Woolcott works at his family's publishing firm producing in the main "The Beginner's Guides" to everything under the sun, books for which he makes no great claims, calling them "gestures ... a set of instruction manuals whose stated goal was to skim the surface". When he meets Dr. Dorothy Rosales to seek expert help with "The Beginner's Cancer", he finds her stubborn and prickly and unbending, but despite a degree of incompatibility, love blossoms.
Some years into their marriage, a freak accident at home takes Dorothy's life. Aaron slowly adjusts to his new existence, and then Dorothy starts appearing here and there for short whiles and longer stays. Aaron doesn't question this sudden materialisation, thinking perhaps that Dorothy has returned to tell him something, sensing that once she has done that she will leave again - a moment he feels he would be unable to bear. So he avoids the whys and wherefores but takes comfort from just being with her, and the two begin to talk ... and then to bicker. Their marriage had been "out of sync. Uncoordinated. It seemed we just never quite got the hang of being a couple the way other people did," and the death of one partner clearly hasn't changed that.
This is a bittersweet book (see also Breathing Lessons), full of Anne Tyler's sharp but subtle observation and warm humour. She is a marvellous chronicler of everyday life, and adept at portraying the man or woman in the street as an ordinary person, not a stagey 'character'. Her people are human, their predicaments real, and she writes with affection, understanding and a natural fluency which makes the book a great pleasure to read.
Anne Tyler will be appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival on Sunday, 1st. April, talking about the book and receiving The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence; I should think she will be very much worth hearing.