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Back When We Were Grownupsby Anne Tyler
Synopses & Reviews
"Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person." So Anne Tyler opens this irresistible new novel.
The woman is Rebecca Davitch, a fifty-three-year-old grandmother. Is she an impostor in her own life? she asks herself. Is it indeed her own life? Or is it someone else's? On the surface, Beck, as she is known to the Davitch clan, is outgoing, joyous, a natural celebrator. Giving parties is, after all, her vocation — something she slipped into even before finishing college, when Joe Davitch spotted her at an engagement party in his family's crumbling nineteenth-century Baltimore row house, where giving parties was the family business. What caught his fancy was that she seemed to be having such a wonderful time. Soon this large-spirited older man, a divorcé with three little girls, swept her into his orbit, and before she knew it she was embracing his extended family plus a child of their own, and hosting endless parties in the ornate, high-ceilinged rooms of The Open Arms.
Now, some thirty years later, after presiding over a disastrous family picnic, Rebecca is caught un-awares by the question of who she really is. How she answers it — how she tries to recover her girlhood self, that dignified grownup she had once been — is the story told in this beguiling, funny, and deeply moving novel.
As always with Anne Tyler's novels, once we enter her world it is hard to leave. But in Back When We Were Grownups she so sharpens our perceptions and awakens so many untapped feelings that we come away not only refreshed and delighted, but also infinitely wiser.
"In her deeply moving and perfectly syncopated new novel, Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler presents a stunning portrait of fifty-three-year-old Rebecca Davitch....There's not a flat line in this book, not a single simple character, not a moment that isn't tapped for all its glorious possibilities....This is storytelling at its best and most breathtaking. Tyler, an acknowledged master of the form, is living up to her well-earned reputation." Beth Kephart, Book Magazine
"Packed with life in all its humdrum complexity and funny, so funny, the kind that compels reading aloud. A masterful effort from one of our very best." Kirkus Reviews
"Wise, kind, rueful and clear-eyed...and her truths are as gritty as earth and as interesting as the world." Amy Bloom, Elle
"Her feel for character is so keen that even hardened metafictionalists [who] would happily fry the whole notion of ?character? for breakfast are reduced to the role of helpless gossips, swapping avid hunches about the possible fates of the characters." Tom Shone, The New Yorker
At 53, Rebecca Davitch mistress of the Open Arms, a crumbling 19th-century row house in Baltimore where giving parties is the family business suddenly asks herself whether she has turned into the wrong person. But can she really recover the woman she has left behind?
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
She was fifty-three years old by then--a grandmother. Wide and soft and dimpled, with two short wings of dry, fair hair flaring almost horizontally from a center part. Laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. A loose and colorful style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady.
Give her credit: most people her age would say it was too late to make any changes. What's done is done, they would say. No use trying to alter things at this late date.
It did occur to Rebecca to say that. But she didn't.
On the day she made her discovery, she was picnicking on the North Fork River out in Baltimore County. It was a cool, sunny Sunday in early June of 1999, and her family had gathered to celebrate the engagement of Rebecca's youngest stepdaughter, NoNo Davitch.
The Davitches' cars circled the meadow like covered wagons braced for attack. Their blankets dotted the grass, and their thermos jugs and ice chests and sports equipment crowded the picnic table. The children were playing beside the river in one noisy, tumbling group, but the adults kept themselves more separate. Alone or in twos they churned about rearranging their belongings, jockeying for spots in the sun, wandering off hither and yon in their moody Davitch manner. One of the stepdaughters was sitting by herself in her minivan. One of the sons-in-law was stretching his hamstrings over by the runners' path. The uncle was stabbing the ground repeatedly with his cane.
Goodness, what would Barry think? (Barry, the new fiance.) He would think they disapproved of his marrying NoNo.
And he would be right.
Not that they ever behaved much differently under any conditions.
Barry had a blanket mostly to himself, because NoNo kept flitting elsewhere. The tiniest and prettiest of the Davitch girls--a little hummingbird of a person--she darted first to one sister and then another, ducking her shiny dark cap of hair and murmuring something urgent.
Murmuring, "Like him, please," maybe. Or, "At least make him feel welcome."
The first sister grew very busy rummaging through a straw hamper. The second shaded her eyes and pretended to look for the children.
Rebecca--who earned her living hosting parties, after all--felt she had no choice but to clap her hands and call, "Okay, folks!"
Languidly, they turned. She seized a baseball from the table and held it up. No, it was bigger than a baseball. A softball, then; undoubtedly the property of the son-in-law stretching his hamstrings, who taught phys ed at the local high school. It was all the same to Rebecca; she had never been the sporty type. Still: "Time for a game, everybody!" she called. "Barry? NoNo? Come on, now! We'll say this rock is home plate. Zeb, move that log over to where first base ought to be. The duffel bag can be second, and for third . . . Who's got something we can use for third?"
They groaned, but she refused to give up. "Come on, people! Show some life here! We need to exercise off all that food we're about to eat!"
In slow motion they began to obey, rising from their blankets and drifting where she pointed. She turned toward the runners' path and, "Yoo-hoo! Jeep!" she called. Jeep stopped hugging one beefy knee and squinted in her direction. "Haul yourself over here!" she ordered. "We're organizing a softball game!"
"Aw, Beck," he said, "I was hoping to get a run in." But he came plodding toward her.
While Jeep set about correcting the placement of the bases, Rebecca went to deal with the stepdaughter in the minivan. Who happened to be Jeep's wife, in fact. Rebecca hoped this wasn't one of their silly quarrels. "Sweetie!" she sang out. She waded through the weeds, scooping up armfuls of her big red bandanna-print skirt. "Patch? Roll down your window, Patch. Can you hear me? Is something the matter?"
Patch turned and gazed out at her. You could tell she must be hot. Spikes of her chopped black hair were sticking to her forehead, and her sharp, freckled face was shining with sweat. Still, she made no move to open her window. Rebecca grabbed the door handle and yanked it--luckily, just before Patch thought to push the lock down.
"Now, then!" Rebecca caroled. "What's all this about?"
Patch said, "Can't a person ever get a moment of peace in this family?"
She was thirty-seven years old but looked more like fourteen, in her striped T-shirt and skinny jeans. And acted like fourteen, too, Rebecca couldn't help thinking; but all she said was, "Come on out and join us! We're starting up a softball game."
"For Lord's sake, Beck, don't you know how I hate this?"
"Hate it!" Rebecca cried merrily, choosing to misunderstand. "But you're wonderful at sports! The rest of us don't even know where the bases go. Poor Jeep is having to do everything."
Patch said, "I cannot for the life of me see why we should celebrate my little sister's engagement to a--to a--"
Words appeared to fail her. She clamped her arms tight across her flat chest and faced forward again.
"To a what?" Rebecca asked her. "A nice, decent, well-spoken man. A lawyer."
"A corporate lawyer. A man who brings his appointment book to a picnic; did you notice his appointment book? Him and his yacht-looking, country-club-looking clothes; his ridiculous yellow crew cut; his stupid rubber-soled boating shoes. And look at how he was sprung on us! Just sprung on us with no warning! One day it's, oh, poor NoNo, thirty-five years old and never even been kissed so far as anyone knew; and the next day--I swear, the very next day!--she pops up out of the blue and announces an August wedding."
"Well, now, I just have a feeling she may have kept him secret out of nervousness," Rebecca said. "She didn't want to look foolish, in case the courtship came to nothing. Also, maybe she worried you girls would be too critical."
Not without reason, she didn't add.
Patch said, "Hogwash. You know why she kept him secret: he's been married once before. Married and divorced, with a twelve-year-old son to boot."
"Well, these things do happen," Rebecca said drily.
"And such a pathetic son, too. Did you see?" Patch jabbed a thumb toward the children by the river, but Rebecca didn't bother turning. "A puny little runt of a son! And it can't have escaped your notice that Barry has sole custody. He's had to cook for that child and clean house, drive the car pool, help with homework . . . Of course he wants a wife! Unpaid nanny, is more like it."
"Now, dearie, that's an insult to NoNo," Rebecca said. "Any man in his right mind would want NoNo for her own sake."
Patch merely gave an explosive wheeze that lifted the spikes of hair off her forehead.
"Just think," Rebecca reminded her. "Didn't I marry a divorced man with three little girls? And see, it worked out fine! I'd be married to him still, if he had lived."
All Patch said to this was, "And how you could throw a party for them!"
"Well, of course I'd throw a party. It's an occasion!" Rebecca said. "Besides: you and Biddy asked for one, if I remember correctly."
"We asked if you planned to give one, is all, since you're so fond of engagement parties. Why, Min Foo's had three of them! They seem to be kind of a habit with you."
Rebecca opened her mouth to argue, because she was almost positive that Patch and Biddy had requested, in so many words, that she put together a picnic. But then she saw that she might have misinterpreted. Maybe they had just meant that since they knew she would be planning something, they would prefer it to be held outside. (Oh, the Davitch girls were very unsocial. "I guess you're going to insist on some kind of shindig," one of them would sigh, and then they would show up and sit around looking bored, picking at their food while Rebecca tried to jolly things along.)
Well, no matter, because Patch was finally unfolding herself from the minivan. She slammed the door behind her and said, "Let's get started, then, if you're so set on this."
"Thank you, sweetie," Rebecca said. "I just know we'll have a good time today."
Patch said, "Ha!" and marched off toward the others, leaving Rebecca to trail behind.
The softball game had begun now, at least in a halfhearted way. People were scattered across the meadow seemingly at random, with Rebecca's brother-in-law and Barry so far off in the outfield that they might not even be playing. The catcher (Biddy) was tying her shoe. The uncle leaned on his cane at an indeterminate spot near third base. Rebecca's daughter was sunbathing on first, lounging in the grass with her face tipped back and her eyes closed.
As Patch and then Rebecca came up behind home plate, Jeep was assuming the batter's stance, his barrel-shaped body set sideways to them and his bat wagging cockily. NoNo, on the pitcher's mound, crooked her arm at an awkward angle above her shoulder and released the ball. It traveled in an uncertain arc until Jeep lost patience and took a stride forward and hit a low drive past second. Hakim, Rebecca's son-in-law, watched with interest as it whizzed by. (No surprise there, since Hakim hailed from someplace Arab and had probably never seen a softball in his life.) Jeep dropped his bat and trotted to first, not disturbing Min Foo's sunbath in the least. He rounded second, receiving a beatific smile from Hakim, and headed for third. Third was manned by Biddy's . . . oh, Rebecca never knew what to call him . . . longtime companion, dear Troy, who always claimed it was while he was fumbling a pop-up fly at age five that he first realized he was gay. All he did was wave amiably as Jeep went trundling past.
By that time, Barry had managed to locate the ball. He threw it toward Biddy, but she was tying her other shoe now. It was Patch who stepped forward to intercept it, apparently without effort. Then she turned back to home plate and tagged her husband out.
Patch and Jeep might have been playing alone, for all the reaction they got. Biddy straightened up from her shoe and yawned. NoNo started clucking over a broken fingernail. Min Foo was probably unaware of what had happened, even--unless she'd been able to figure it out with her eyes closed.
"Oh," Rebecca cried, "you-all are not even trying! Where is your team spirit?"
"For that, we need more than one side," Jeep said, wiping his forehead on his shoulder. "There aren't enough of us playing."
To Rebecca, it seemed just then that there were far too many of them. Such a large and unwieldy group, they were; so cumbersome, so much work. But she said, "You're absolutely right," and turned in the direction of the river. "Kids!" she called. "Hey, kids!"
The children were hopping in an uneven line a good twenty yards away, beyond a stretch of buzzing, humming grass and alongside flowing water; so at first they didn't hear her. She had to haul up her skirt again and slog toward them, calling, "Come on, everybody! Come and play ball! You kids against us grownups!"
Now they stopped what they were doing (some version of Follow the Leader, it seemed, leaping from rock to rock) and looked over at her. Five of the six were here today--all but Dixon, the oldest, who'd gone someplace else with his girlfriend. And then there was Barry's son, what's-his-name. Peter. "Peter?" Rebecca called. "Want to play softball?"
He stood slightly apart from the others, noticeably pale-haired and white-skinned and scrawny in this company of dark, vivid Davitch children. Rebecca felt a tug of sympathy for him. She called, "You can be pitcher, if you like!"
He took a step backward and shook his head. Well, no, of course: she should have offered him the outfield. Something inconspicuous. The others, meanwhile, had broken rank and were starting toward her. "Not It, not It," the youngest child was chanting, evidently confused as to what softball was all about. Patch and Jeep's three (wouldn't you know) were vying to be first at bat. "We'll draw straws," Rebecca told them. "Come on, everybody! Winning team gets excused from cleanup after lunch."
Only Peter stayed where he was. He was balanced on a low rock, alert and motionless, giving off a chilling silence. Rebecca called, "Sweetie? Aren't you coming?"
Again he shook his head. The other children veered around her and plowed on toward the playing field, but Rebecca gathered her skirt higher and pressed forward. Long, cool grasses tickled her bare calves. A cloud of startled white butterflies fluttered around her knees. She reached the first rock, took a giant step up, and leapt to the next rock just beyond, teetering for a second before she found her footing on the slick, mossy surface. (She was wearing rope-soled espadrilles that gave her almost no traction.) So far she was still on dry land, but most of the other rocks--Peter's included--turned out to be partly submerged. This meant that the children had been disobeying instructions. They'd been warned to stay away from the river, which was unpredictably deep in some spots and wider than a two-lane highway, not to mention icy cold so early in the season.
Peter kept as still as a cornered deer; Rebecca sensed that even though she wasn't looking at him. For the moment, she was looking at the scenery. Oh, didn't a river rest your eyes! She sank into a peaceful trance, watching how the water seemed to gather itself as it traveled toward a sharp bend. It swelled up in loose, silky tangles and then it smoothed and flowed on, transparent at the edges but nearly opaque at the center, as yellow-green and sunlit as a bottle in a window. She drifted with it, dreaming. It could have been a hundred years ago. The line of dark trees on the opposite shore would have looked the same; she'd have heard the same soft, curly lapping close by, the same rushing sound farther off.
Well. Enough of this. She tore her gaze away and turned again to Peter. "I've got you now!" she told him gaily.
He took another step backward and disappeared.
For a moment, she couldn't believe what had happened. She just stood there with her mouth open. Then she looked down and saw a turmoil in the water. A small, white, big-eyed face gulping air and choking. A frantic snarl of thin, bare, flailing arms.
About the Author
Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis in 1941 but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated at nineteen from Duke University and went on to do graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University. This is Anne Tyler's fifteenth novel; her eleventh, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore.
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