Digging to America: A Novel
by Anne Tyler
The Roads to Home
A review by Ron Charles
The appearance of a new novel by Anne Tyler is like the arrival of an old friend.
And if you have an old friend, you know that such meetings don't always deliver
anything new. It's mostly updates, the pleasure of reciting inside jokes, revisiting
familiar legends and only then, possibly, the promise of some fresh development.
But who's peevish enough to complain about the limits of a reunion? Everyone who
has a favorite Tyler novel (mine's Saint
Maybe) jumps on the latest one, in part, to rekindle that connection with
this warmhearted author who can appreciate the humor and sadness of our idiosyncrasies.
If there's something naggingly small about her range (Baltimore, quirky family,
intricate meals), we're willing to make allowances. After all, who can keep Mr.
Darcy and Mr. Knightley straight? Didn't Thoreau claim, "I have traveled
much in Concord"? And Baltimore is way bigger than Concord.
But now it's time to put that defensiveness aside. With her 17th novel, Tyler
has delivered something startlingly fresh while retaining everything we love
about her work. Digging to America delivers the blithely insular, suburban
Baltimore characters we expect, but it's a bait-and-switch move. In a daring
expansion of Tyler's range, the people who are really at the heart of this novel
come from Korea, China and Iran. Tyler was married to Iranian-born psychiatrist
Taghi Mohammad Modarressi from 1963 until his death in 1997. Although she keeps
her personal life closely guarded, her exposure to Iranian culture through him
must have animated the spirit of this novel. Her success at portraying culture
clash and the complex longings and resentments of those new to America confirms
what we knew, or should have known, all along: There's nothing small about Tyler's
world, nothing precious about her attention to the hopes and fears of ordinary
The novel opens at the Baltimore airport in 1997. Brad and Bitsy Donaldson
and an entourage of camera-wielding friends and relations are awaiting the arrival
of their adopted baby daughter from Korea. Off to the side of this raucous group
stand "people no one had noticed before . . . a youngish couple, foreign-looking,
olive-skinned and attractive." It turns out that Sami and Ziba Yazdam are
also waiting for an adopted baby daughter from Korea, and when the Donaldsons
become aware of this happy coincidence, they introduce themselves to the shy
Iranian-American couple. Two weeks later, Bitsy tracks Ziba down to see how
things are going. A few months after that, Bitsy invites the Yazdams to the
Donaldsons' annual leaf-raking supper. The two couples become fast friends,
and each year they throw an enormous party to celebrate their daughters' arrival
in the States. These annual get-togethers -- complete with competing meals,
the original airport video and a theme song ("She'll Be Coming Round the
Mountain") -- serve as the novel's structure, our chance to check in on
the development of two very different families over the years.
Bitsy is a marvelous creation: the tireless, culturally sensitive super-mom
(cloth diapers, organic food, anything expensive and inconvenient). Sami quietly
resents her advice and critique ("You put your daughter in a playpen?"),
but his wife, Ziba, eager to do the right thing, to blend in, to be American,
is mesmerized by her energetic opinions: "You notice I'm wearing black
and white," Bitsy tells Ziba. "That's because babies don't see colors.
Only black and white. I've worn nothing but black and white from the day that
While the Yazdams immediately change their daughter's name from Sooki to Susan,
the Donaldsons couldn't be more pleased with their daughter's chic foreignness
and do everything they can to celebrate it. They read her only Korean folk tales.
They dress her in a kimono with a pointed hat and little embroidered shoes.
"You might want to give her soy milk," Bitsy advises Ziba. "Soy
is more culturally appropriate." Tyler's subtle wit gets these ironies
just right: The Iranian immigrants must wrestle with when to assimilate, when
to resist, while their white-bread friends carry on about how much they love
ethnicity. She's particularly good at conveying the wry humor these Iranian-Americans
use to endure numerous little slights from their well-intentioned but condescending
Sami's mother, Maryam, finds the Donaldsons' enthusiasm for all things foreign
particularly annoying. Hearing that her son and daughter-in-law plan to cook
a big Iranian meal at the next annual Arrival Party, she thinks, "Why should
they have to put on these ethnic demonstrations? Let the Donaldsons go to the
Smithsonian for that!" An American citizen for 31 years, Maryam grew up
and studied in Iran until her wealthy family whisked her out of the country
when she joined a group of radical students who opposed the shah. Now widowed,
in her sixties, she's a model of conservative self-sufficiency, working part-time
at a local school and caring for her son's adopted daughter, determined never
to interfere or cling. She's "happy to be on her own, grateful for the
quietness and neatness of her life."
She's not the flashiest or funniest character in this novel, by far, but gradually
she becomes its focus, and she's fascinating because Tyler catches all the subtle
contradictions buried beneath her stoic exterior. (There's something very reminiscent
of Anita Brookner's novels here.) Maryam is troubled by her son's satiric cracks
about Americans: "So instantaneously chummy they are, so 'Hello, I love
you,' so 'How do you do, let me tell you my marital problems.' " Sami's
friends think he's hilarious, but he sounds disturbingly ungrateful to her:
"Where would you be without this country?" she asks him. "You
take it for granted, is the problem." And yet, Maryam complains, "Americans
are all larger than life. You think if you keep company with them you will be
larger too, but then you see that they're making you shrink; they're expanding
and edging you out."
Still, she can't shake that desire to belong, to overcome her state of confirmed
"outsiderness." Even after 31 years, she confesses, "It's a lot
of work, being foreign." And here is Tyler's most skillful move: Without
in any way diminishing the barriers of culture or discounting the offenses and
disappointments on all sides, she manages to universalize Maryam's plight, to
demonstrate that "we all think the others belong more." Maryam must
consider that her sense of dislocation is a side effect not just of being an
immigrant but of being human. She realizes, finally, how stubbornly she's clung
to her outsiderness, reinforced it and emphasized it at the cost of her own
happiness. Almost any other novelist who could reach this state of exquisite
despair would leave us there, but don't worry: We're in Tyler's Baltimore, which,
it turns out, is big enough to embrace us all.
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