In a story about wives, and husbands, sisters and brothers, Anne Tyler's everyman hero Aaron Woolcott is reeling after his wife, Dorothy, suddenly
perishes in freak accident. In Tyler’s hands, Aaron seems to be a man of destiny, his fate decided from the outset when Dorothy decides to return from the grave--not immediately, but months and months later.
Aaron’s marriage to Dorothy was in its own way as pragmatic as an arranged marriage might have been, but it was also based on Aaron’s need to adopt a new identity rather than any traditional desire to settle down. With a crippled right arm and leg and also
a speech hesitation, much of Aaron’s life is characterized through his work as a copyeditor for his family-owned publishing company, where his daily existence is officiated over by his controlling sister, Nandina.
After Dorothy’s death, Aaron can no longer face living in his house, so he moves in with Nandina in their parents' old place in north Baltimore. While Dorothy moves in and out of the plot in surprising ways, Aaron truly comes alive when he speaks in tones of regret, pondering the notion of why his wife has decided to come back at all. Perhaps
she has returned on some special assignment or been permitted to come back just long enough to tell him something.
Aaron is expected to get over his loss and try to do without Dorothy, buoyed along by the ridiculous phrases people make. When he senses a person at the curb
and notices her characteristic roundness and intense alertness, Dorothy seems as real “as the no parking sign beside her.” Even after all these months, Dorothy is the epitome of her old self: strong-willed, sturdy
and stubborn, not the passive victim she became in her final days.
Tyler’s seemingly arbitrary sample of one man’s life, set against the background of
contemporary Baltimore, beautifully draws out the resilient bonds of love. Aaron
is an intelligent observer of detail who acutely monitors the world around him.
From his perspective, he didn’t have the greatest of marriages, especially in the final weeks and months: “we weren’t living in a fairytale, we were backed into a corner, we didn’t know how to get out of it.”
The dead do visit--and if you know them well enough, and if you listen to them closely enough while they’re still alive, you might be able to imagine what they would tell you now. Aaron, though enlivened by the matchless ghost of Dorothy, isn’t exactly shot through with regrets, but he
is an introverted type who tends to make choices that guarantee he will miss out on many of the joys that make life worth living--love, family, and a sense of self worth.
Tyler infuses this fable-like novel with subtle moral lessons about moving on
and shows how to learn from the lessons of the past. In tender tones, the author evokes Aaron’s lingering attractions, his pain, and his loneliness in an engaging style that evokes the recognitions of selfhood that the years of love and marriage entail.