What I Did for Love

The Beginner’s Goodbye is Anne Tyler’s smallest book to date, and fans will wish there was more to it.  The characters in this book are mostly in their 20s and 30s, but act more like they are middle aged or plucked out of some pre-eletronic, earlier time.  Granted they are quirky.  Aaron is awkward both in manner and in body; a childhood illness has shrunken an arm and leg so that he walks lurchingly, often with a cane; his personality is the personification of his affliction.  He falls for Dorothy, an equally socially awkward woman who is eight years his senior, a doctor who is no beauty, careless in appearance, and so doctorly that she seems to wear her white coat even when she doesn’t, which isn’t often.  Despite her tepid response, Aaron pursues her.  The reader is struck with the seeming randomness of love.  This unlikely couple go on to have a marriage that, while working through his grief over Dorothy’s untimely death by fallen tree, Aaron admits has been difficult.  The really intriguing part of the story comes with the reappearance of Dorothy as a ghost and her ensuing insightful remarks about the relationship.  Because of them, Aaron is able to come to terms with his shortcomings as a partner and to grow emotionally.  What I really appreciated about this book is the honest portrayal of the capricious nature of infatuation and the life-altering consequences of pursuing a relationship that seems ill-advised and is discouraged by others.  Moth to a flame.

It reminds me of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot which chronicles the love triangle of three Brown students and follows the year after their graduation.  Madeleine falls for the enigmatic Leonard during one of his manic phases and somehow she never reconciles her romantic ideal of him when he sinks into debilitating depression.  Meanwhile, her buddy Mitchell who wishes to be more than a friend suffers teasing, insult, and rejection at shallow Madeleine’s well-manicured hands.  Madeleine exasperates readers as she marries Leonard and gives up her own dreams, like some Victorian anti-heroine.  Most engrossing is how Eugenides slips from one to another of the three points of view, convincingly and revealingly.  Here are three smart characters letting love make a fool of them.

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