As a fan of Anne Tyler's novels, I'm a little embarrassed that it took me three tries to get started on her latest, Back When We Were Grownups. I think maybe I was influenced by the critics who have written that her recent fiction isn't up to the standards she set earlier in her career. Like she's gone soft or something.
I love this book, though. I finished it today, and it has two elements that always make a work of fiction appeal to me. It redefines "family," in this case by describing a woman who is widowed at an early age and raises her husband's three young daughters. And it portrays this character as someone who lives her life without even realizing the effect she has on others.
A long time ago I knew a woman like that. She undervalued herself, because she felt unappreciated by the people around her. She often felt as if no one could see or hear her. Invisible. She didn't know how much joy she brought into people's lives, just by being who she was. I wasn't the person who needed to tell her this, but I tried to find ways to show her.
The book is written by a woman, about a woman, but there are characters in it that I identify more closely with. Sometimes I feel like Will, the tentative, awkward suitor. More often I'm Steven, the uncertain twelve-year-old trying to find his place in the family. There are so many vivid characters, and each one breathes life into an aspect of the human condition.
None of this is what the book is about. Well, it's not everything the book is about, but it's what makes it special to me. Now I've started reading the latest by Elizabeth George, my favorite mystery writer because she's so much more than just a mystery writer.