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© Bella Stander

book reviews

Back When We Were Grownups
by Anne Tyler
(Alfred A. Knopf)

Wall Street Journal
May 11, 2001

by Bella Stander

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person” is the enticing beginning of Tyler’s 15th novel. That’s the setup for a fairy tale, but as it turns out the only magical happenings occur in the mind of 53-year-old Rebecca Davitch as she mistily pictures the life she could have led--and maybe still can. Beck’s “discovery” occurs when, as usual, she’s in the midst of a gathering of the numerous and vociferous Davitch clan. “How on earth did I ever become this person who’s not really me?” she muses.

Married at 19 to an older man with three young daughters, then suddenly widowed after having one of her own, Beck has always done what others needed her to do. Along the way she metamorphosed from a shy, drab bookworm into a professional partygiver with a “loose and colorful style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady.” “When she was a girl, she had imagined her future as a single, harmonious picture,” Ms. Tyler writes. “But what she had ended up with was more like the view in one of those multi-lensed optical toys…dozens of tiny chips of pictures, each interfering with the others.”

In an effort to regain that harmonious picture, Beck contacts Will, the childhood sweetheart she’d abruptly dumped to marry Joe Davitch. Will is now a college professor, and Beck has rosy fantasies about their sharing the refined cultural and intellectual activities that she’d always meant to pursue. But rather than Beck being pulled into Will’s sphere, he is sucked into the maelstrom of life at the “Open Arms,” the crumbling Baltimore rowhouse that she rents out for parties.

There are no great surprises in Back When We Were Grownups, but there are plenty of little ones, not the least of which are such gemlike phrases as “the flannel darkness high above her turned white and then transparent.” As always with this author, you have to love the Baltimore setting and welter of quirky characters, warts and all (though it’s hard to keep them all straight), if only because Ms. Tyler so obviously does. This novel may not break new literary ground, but it offers wise and poignant insights about aging, motherhood and families. And that’s plenty.

© 2001 Bella Stander

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