Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant | Critical Essay by Paula Gallant Eckard

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.
This section contains 5,131 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Paula Gallant Eckard

Critical Essay by Paula Gallant Eckard

SOURCE: "Family and Community in Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 33-44.

In the following essay, Eckard compares Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

At eighty-five, Pearl Tull is blind and dying. She drifts through dreams and recollections, sliding back and forth through time as she remembers the grandfather who smelled like mothballs, the aunts scented with pomade and lavender water. Pearl even recalls her cousin Bertha, who carried a bottle of crystals to ward off fainting spells. But most of all, Pearl remembers her children. She recalls Cody, her eldest, as always being a troublemaker, a "difficult baby." Ezra, her second child, was "so sweet and clumsy it could break your heart." And Jenny, "the girl," in Pearl's mind was a kind of luxury. Also, Pearl realizes that she was "an angry sort of mother." Deserted by her husband, Pearl had always felt "continually on edge … too burdened … too alone" in raising her children. She considered her children to be inept in handling everyday concerns, and she regarded their incompetence with indulgent scorn. Even now on her deathbed she calls them "duckers and dodgers." However, as the dying Pearl slips in and out of consciousness, she dreams of her three young children at the beach, laughing and running towards her across sunlit sand. The pain and anger of their troubled relationships are all but forgotten.

Pearl's recollections in Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant mirror the ambivalence of feeling that comes with the birth of children and follows a mother even unto death. They suggest emotions common to many women as they grapple with maternal roles and struggle to give their children earnest measures of love and acceptance. However, Pearl's recollections represent just one perspective, a singular look at a fragmented and troubled family. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler examines many facets of family relationships, particularly as they evolve between mother and child, fester between siblings, and extend into the world beyond. In life, as in Tyler's novel, the family is the base from which the individual moves into society and acquires a sense of community. The community serves in turn as an enlarged version of the family, a larger arena for each person to act out the same conflicts, struggles, hopes, and dreams as he did in his family of origin. However troubled and strained relationships may be, family and community represent "home," and, for better or worse, the individual must come to terms with this. In Tyler's novel these things are no less true. Depicting the dynamics of the Tull family with a shrewd and keen insight, Tyler carefully explores its members' connections to the past, to the community, and with each other.

In creating the eccentric Tulls, Tyler establishes her own connections while writing out of a literary tradition that leaves few Southern writers unaffected. In particular, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant shares marked similarities in the portrayal of family and community with William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and, to a lesser extent, Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. As I Lay Dying opens with the impending death of Addie Bundren and incorporates several points of view into the telling of the story. Chapters of the novel are told by Addie, her children, her husband, and members of the community, as they recount their relationships with her. While Addie's family embarks on a funeral journey of grotesque proportions, each member also travels on a disquieting inner journey, one that reveals the utter loneliness at the heart of the Bundren family.

Similarly, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant opens at the bedside of the dying Pearl Tull as she recalls her memories as a young wife and mother. Succeeding chapters are told from different points of view as Pearl's children explore their troubled relationships with their mother and with each other. Years before, Pearl and her children had been abandoned by her husband, Beck Tull. This event had plunged the family into a quiet, swirling darkness that was frequently punctuated by hatred and violence. In journeying through their shared pasts and individual psyches, Cody, Ezra, and Jenny Tull struggle to "understand their father's desertion, their mother's love and anger, and their own responsibility for themselves." In their doing so, past and present alternate throughout the book as the characters search for an understanding of these events and relationships. Like the Bundrens, the Tull family also experiences isolation and alienation from within, producing conditions which Tyler subjects to careful scrutiny, painful exploration, and, finally, a cautious resolution.

While such commonalities in plot and structure can be found in As I Lay Dying and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, characterization provides the richest material for examining family dynamics. As dying matriarchs, Addie Bundren and Pearl Tull are much alike. From her deathbed Addie watches Cash build her coffin. Aware of her wasted potential and her seething ambivalence as a mother, Addie seems to die willfully at a rather young age. In a similar manner, Pearl helps Ezra plan the guest list for her funeral, noting with detached dismay that most of her friends are already dead. Like Addie, Pearl knows that her relationships with her children are far from satisfactory; however, she dutifully holds onto life until age eighty-five. Once as a young mother, Pearl almost died from a penicillin reaction, but to her that was "nonsense." Unlike Addie, Pearl "wouldn't have died; she had children"; and according to Pearl, "When you have children, you're obligated to live."

Pearl's sense of responsibility toward her children is indeed the main theme of her life. All of her life she has suffered a kind of maternal angst in her duty towards them. Although she never trusted others to care for her children, Pearl worried about her ability to single-handedly carry out her maternal obligations. For so long, Pearl felt like the "only one, the sole support, the lone tall tree in the pasture just waiting for lightning to strike." And now that she is dying, Pearl tells Jenny, "You should have got an extra," a "second-string mother" to take over, much as Pearl had "started extra children" after Cody had fallen seriously ill as an infant. What would she have had left if Cody had died, Pearl had wondered. To relieve this anxiety, she had Ezra and Jenny, but ended up feeling "more endangered than ever." Pearl then had to worry about the potential loss of three children and not just one.

Addie Bundren does not possess the same maternal angst and sense of responsibility towards her children as does Pearl towards hers. Addie is described as "not a true mother," and, indeed, she seems only to be going through the motions of motherhood. Addie is archetypally aligned with the darker aspects of the female principle. She regards motherhood with an almost vicious intensity, seeing thematic connections between sin, birth, and death. In regard to begetting her children, Addie speaks of lying beside Anse Bundren in the dark, hearing "the dark land talking of God's love and His beauty and His sin." In regard to bearing her children she speaks of "the terrible blood, the red bitter flood boiling through the land." To Addie her children were "of the wild blood boiling along the earth, of me and of all that lived, of none and of all." Through these words Addie establishes almost mythic connections to motherhood, reflecting a universality of experience shared by the female collective unconscious. However, Addie's view is a perversion of the procreative experience. After the bearing of her children, Addie felt her aloneness "violated over and over each day."

While Pearl Tull's "extra children" are conceived out of a gripping maternal angst and fear of loss, Addie's are conceived and born out of a cold, detached rage. She dispassionately and cryptically tells how she "gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel" and how she "gave him Vardaman to replace the child I had robbed him of." As Addie interprets it, to give birth is to die. With the bearing of her children, Addie finally perceives the ironic truth in her father's belief "that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead." After the birth of Vardaman, her youngest child, Addie says she then "could get ready to die." With motherhood Addie indeed experiences a symbolic death, one which culminates much later in her physical death. In the intervening years, she professes to love Cash and Jewel, but Addie rejects her other children with a harsh and violent cruelty.

Although she is not cast with the same vigor, Pearl Tull shares many of Addie's Terrible Mother characteristics. Pearl favors Ezra over Cody and Jenny, but all three children suffer her anger and rage. Pearl admits that she was not a "tranquil woman" and that often she "lost her temper, snapped, slapped the nearest cheek, said things she later regretted." She perceives herself as a mother as "difficult," that she sometimes carried on "like a shrew." Pearl believed that in struggling to raise three children alone she acted out of helplessness and fear, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood. For as she once told Cody, "How scary it is to know that everyone I love depends on me! I'm afraid I'll do something wrong." However, the perceptions of Pearl's children are not so forgiving. Cody recalls how as a child, he saw Pearl for what she was not. He wanted a mother who "acted like other mothers," who talked on the telephone and gossiped in the kitchen with other women. He wanted her to have "some outside connection, something beyond that suffocating house." Ezra, on the other hand, "trusted his mother to be everything for him." Once when Pearl cut her finger with a paring knife, he felt "defenseless" and "defeated by her incompetence." Ezra found himself asking, "How could he depend on such a person? Why had she let him down so?" In contrast, Jenny perceived her mother as something dangerous and unpredictable, something more in keeping with Addie Bundren's persona. To Jenny, Pearl was a shrieking witch whose "pale hair could crackle electrically from its bun" and whose "eyes could get small as hatpins." More than once Pearl had slammed Jenny against a wall and called her "serpent," "cockroach," and "hideous little sniveling guttersnipe." Also, Jenny is given to dreams about her mother, including one in which Pearl, with an "informative and considerate tone of voice," revealed that "she was raising Jenny to eat her."

Besides these disturbing maternal similarities, Addie and Pearl have other aspects of life in common, tamer and more mundane perhaps, but significant in what they reveal about family and community. Addie and Pearl both had been "orphaned" spinsters with no immediate family. While Addie's family lay buried in the Jefferson cemetery, Pearl's consisted of a loosely-knitconglomeration of aunts, uncles, and cousins with whom she eventually lost touch. Relatively late in life, both women had married men somewhat beneath themselves. Addie married fanner Anse Bundren, while Pearl married Beck Tull, a farm equipment salesman. Pearl's married name, Tull, is suggestive of Addie's neighbor, Cora Tull. Marriage for both Addie and Pearl was an escape from spinsterhood and from bleak futures in tiresome jobs. As a rural school teacher Addie loathed her students, looking forward to the times when they "faulted" so she could whip them. Addie's anger and hatred was also inner-directed, making the whippings a kind of self-flagellation that enjoined her flesh with theirs. With each blow of the switch Addie could feel "it upon [her] flesh," and when their flesh "welted and ridged it was [her] blood that ran." She would think, "Now you are aware of me!" Perhaps to escape from her own raging desperation, Addie tells how she then "took" Anse, a simple man with "a little property" and "a good honest name." However, her life with Anse was equally dismal, and after the birth of Cash she found "that the living was terrible." For Addie, marriage and motherhood initiated a slow, downward spiral to death.

Pearl's marriage at age thirty to Beck Tull represented a welcomed release from an inevitable future as an "orphaned spinster niece" tying up her uncle's spare bedroom. She had scorned a college education for fear it would be an admission of defeat, and before following her Uncle Seward's suggestion about a secretarial course, Pearl met Beck Tull. He courted her with chocolates and flowers and told her what a "cultured and refined little lady" she was. However, marriage for Pearl also proved to be a disappointment. After they were married, Pearl and Beck set off on a series of moves that took her away from what family she had. In each new community Pearl kept to herself. She "didn't hold with depending," and once, rather than leave her children with neighbors so she could seek help for a broken arm, Pearl waited nearly two days for Beck to return from a business trip.

After Beck Tull's eventual desertion, Pearl staunchly carried on as if nothing had happened. She took a job at Sweeney's grocery but acted cool and crisp towards any neighbors who dropped in to shop. In her Baltimore neighborhood she was thought to be "unfriendly, even spooky—the witch of Calvert Street." Unperturbed by her neighbors' speculations and criticisms, Pearl remained aloof and detached from her community in much the same way that Addie held herself apart from Cora Tull and her other Mississippi neighbors. Pearl simply wanted to get on with the practical, everyday things that mattered, such as caulking the windows and weatherstripping the doors. By keeping the house maintained and repaired Pearl could more confidently hold her own world together. With tools she felt like "her true self, capable and strong," perhaps much like the dull and steady Cash Bundren with his saw and adze.

Despite the difficulties that marriage and motherhood brought, Pearl Tull didn't give up. Unlike Addie, she continued to plod steadily through life with a blind and numb tenacity, experiencing an occasional, poignant awareness about her children and life itself. Unable to hold back time, Pearl equated her children's growing up with the "gradual dimming of light at her bedroom door, as if they took some radiance with them as they moved away from her." In her later years, with a growing preoccupation with death, Pearl realized that with dying "you don't get to see how it all turns out" and "questions you have asked will go forever unanswered." As a result, she was left wondering, "Will this one of my children settle down? Will that one learn to be happier? Will I ever discover what was meant by such-and-such?"

In certain respects, Pearl's sensibilities are similar to Addie Bundren's, only gentler and more embracing of life and motherhood. With a restless longing, Addie recalls the early spring with "the wild geese going north and their honking coming faint and high and wild out of the wild darkness." In a similar manner, Pearl listens as traffic sounds of "horns and bells and rags of music" mingle with her memories of "the feel of wind on summer nights—how it billows through the house and wafts the curtains and smells of tar and roses." In her reverie, Pearl remembers the wondrous feeling of "how a sleeping baby weighs so heavily on your shoulder, like ripe fruit." She recalls the delicious privacy of walking in the rain "beneath the drip and crackle of your own umbrella." Pearl's words reveal a quiet, buoying affirmation of life. In contrast to the nihilistic Addie who angrily rejects life and motherhood, Pearl accepts the totality of pain, disappointment, and joy that love and family often bring. For better or worse, she bears these things dutifully and simply carries on. Pearl is no martyr, but neither is she consumed with anger or bitterness. In her dying reveries she takes a final, matter-of-fact look backwards at children, husband, and family and then brings a not unhappy closure on her life. Having done this. Pearl no longer feels obligated to live.

While parallels can be drawn between Addie Bundren and Pearl Tull, similarities extend into their families as well. In both novels, the children must deal with the familial upheaval created by a dying mother, and to some extent they must come to terms with themselves and each other. Noteworthy similarities between Addie's and Pearl's children evolve in this process and cannot go unmentioned. In characterization, Jenny Tull is a modern inversion of Addie's daughter, Dewey Dell, who is a not-so-bright, fecund Earth Mother. Dewey Dell is in her actions the real mother in As I Lay Dying, as she displays a caring, nurturing love towards Vardaman and tirelessly fans Addie on her deathbed. Her name is suggestive of nature and the earth with its moist, rich female fertility. Dewey Dell appears to be a sexually-duped country girl, while Jenny Tull on the other hand is intelligent and well-educated. Jenny is not fertile in the traditional sense, as she has only one child of her own. However, from her third marriage Jenny acquires six step-children who have been deserted by their natural mother. She generously mothers them all, much as Dewey Dell kind-heartedly treats her younger brother, Vardaman. With grace and ease, Jenny raises her stepchildren without the torment and ambivalence that she experienced at the hands of her own mother. Jenny is also a pediatrician, a fact that enhances this contemporary Earth Mother image. She good-naturedly endures the "scrapes and bruises that [she] gathered daily in her raucous games with her patients." In her role as a physician, Jenny is a kind of surrogate parent who conscientiously labors for the well-being of her community. Unlike her mother, she is much involved with the concerns of other people. Whether in caring for her patients or her step-children, Jenny has an acute sense of family and community which underlies her actions.

However, neither Jenny nor Dewey Dell is wholly cast in the image of the Good Mother; paradoxes exist within both. After all, Dewey Dell has embarked on the funeral journey not so much to bury Addie but rather in hopes of finding an abortifacientto end her unwanted pregnancy. She shares many of Addie's Terrible Mother characteristics. Like Addie, Dewey Dell also feels the pull of the earth's darkness, stating that the earth "lies dead and warm upon me, touching me naked through my clothes." Dewey Dell also describes how she feels like "a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth." These dark, negative images foreshadow the vehemence which she later turns on Darl after he burns Gillespie's barn. When Darl's arrest is imminent, Dewey Dell jumps on him "like a wild cat … scratching and clawing," her rejection and hatred of Darl paralleling Addie's.

Jenny Tull contains a similar propensity for love and violence, one which emerges early in her relationship with her daughter Becky. As a single mother and struggling intern, Jenny was often irritable and overwhelmed. Once she "hauled off and slapped [Becky] hard across the mouth, then shook her till her head lolled"; and at another time Jenny "slammed Becky's face into her Peter Rabbit dinner plate and gave her a bloody nose." After these events occur, Jenny recalls childhood memories of "her mother's blows and slaps and curses, her mother's pointed fingernails digging into Jenny's arm." Jenny realizes she is reenacting her mother's pattern of violence, and through a total, desperate collapse, she is able to end it. Ironically, it is Pearl who cares for Jenny and Becky during Jenny's breakdown and puts their "world in order again." Pearl reads to Becky and takes her to the playground. She "smoothed clean sheets on Jenny's bed, brought her tea and bracing broths, shampooed her hair, placed flowers on her bureau." Through Pearl's renurturance, Jenny breaks this cycle of destructive ambivalence and is able to love her daughter again without any violence threatening their relationship. At the same time, Pearl herself is redeemed. Jenny goes on to love other people's children as her own, something she exhibits in her work as a pediatrician and with her six, very needful step-children. Thus she transcends the violence she suffered as a child and conquers the same frightening tendencies within herself. In Jenny's character Tyler deals most deftly with the archetypal aspects of both the Good Mother and the Terrible Mother, and in doing so she creates a very real and human mother.

Parallels also can be found in the characters of Cody Tull and Darl Bundren. Compared to their siblings, Cody and Darl have the most difficulty resolving troubling conflicts with their families. Cody bears a hostile resentment towards his brother Ezra in much the same manner that Darl resents Jewel. Ezra is Pearl's favorite child much as Jewel is Addie's, and neither Cody nor Darl can accept a secondary position in his mother's affection. As a result, Cody lashes out at Ezra with much the same anger that Darl directs towards Jewel. As children, Cody teased Ezra, tormented him, and falsely implicated him in "crimes" not of his doing. As adults, Cody still grudgingly blames Ezra for the pain in his life, and he half-consciously seeks revenge.

Structurally, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and As I Lay Dying belong mostly to Cody and Darl. This is evident by the number of chapters Cody and Darl have in proportion to other characters in the two novels. With nineteen chapters, Darl claims at least thirty percent of the novel's fifty-nine chapters. The remaining forty chapters are divided among fourteen other characters. Similarly, Tyler devotes four out often chapters, forty percent, to Cody's point of view. Pearl, Ezra, and Jenny receive two chapters each. Even with multiple points of view, these numbers suggest that Tyler and Faulkner are speaking through the characters of Cody and Darl and that the true consciousness of each of the novels lies in these characters. Indeed, Cody and Darl are the ones most affected by the events in the novels. Darl's exposition of truth throughout the course of his narratives leads to a slow but total disintegration of self by the end of the novel. Warped and twisted by his mother's rejection, Darl tumbles down a fragmentary spiral into a state of madness and final alienation. Cody Tull has been similarly hurt by his mother's rejection and his father's abandonment. However, despite his confusion, anger, and jealousy, Cody experiences a growth towards light and not madness. At Pearl's funeral supper, through an epiphany of sorts, Cody comes to understand and accept the hurt, the anger, and the injuries of the past. Through his actions, Cody is redeemed, his father is forgiven, and his mother is remembered for the goodness that she possessed. In a sense then, Cody is responsible for the unity that his family finally achieves.

While the dynamics of the Tull family parallel the Bundrens', Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is also suggestive of McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, particularly in what it says about community. The titles of the two novels seem to echo each other, and the similarities extend into their texts as well. In each novel a restaurant serves as a focal point that represents a gathering of community. McCullers' cafe becomes a "joyous place" where people trapped in the monotony of mill town life can see themselves as individuals of worth. They come to the Sad Cafe for food, drink, and fellowship. Customers come to the Homesick Restaurant for similar reasons. Most are neighborhood residents who are seeking the family connections that have been lost to modern life. At the Homesick Restaurant customers can get those foods for which they are "homesick." They can be nourished in body and spirit much as they would be at home.

The restaurant in each novel is operated by an eccentric proprietor. The Sad Cafe is owned by Miss Amelia, "a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man." She is a solitary individual who lacks any genuine basis for communication with either men or women. Since Miss Amelia claims kin with no one, relatives never crowd her restaurant, and she invariably eats alone. Ezra Tull, owner of the Homesick Restaurant, appears to contrast with Miss Amelia, and yet there are similarities. Slightly overweight, Ezra is soft, sensitive, and lovable. He does have family to claim, but there is so much tension and conflict between family members that Ezra seems as isolated as Miss Amelia. Throughout the novel Ezra struggles to organize family dinners at his restaurant, but fights erupt whenever he tries to bring his mother, brother, and sister together for a meal. Like Miss Amelia, Ezra too ends up dining alone. However, unlike Miss Amelia, Ezra is not isolated from his community. Unable to unite his family, Ezra finds a sense of family and belonging in his community. He has genuine affection and concern for his neighbors and co-workers. He lovingly cares for Mrs. Scarlatti, his business partner, when she is dying from cancer. He fixes meals and hot cocoa for the Payson family and comforts them when Mr. Payson dies. Ezra generously gives to his community, and the love and concern are reciprocated.

Both Ezra and Miss Amelia create concoctions purported to have powers that go beyond the ordinary. Miss Amelia brews a potent liquor that has the power to heal, kill pain, and produce sexual potency. Early in the novel Miss Amelia offers a weeping and distraught Cousin Lymon some of her brew, saying, "Drink … It will liven your gizzard." Similarly, Ezra Tull is noted for his hot and garlicky gizzard soup. While Miss Amelia's brew seems to have almost magical powers, Ezra's gizzard soup is simply "made with love." Ezra seeks to nourish and heal with such foods. He imagines examining a customer and saying, "You look a little tired. I'll bring you an oxtail stew." Indeed, he develops his gizzard soup for just this purpose. Ezra even replaces his "somber-suited waiters" with "cheery, motherly waitresses," who have more success in getting people to eat his gizzard soup.

The meals that are served in the Sad Cafe and the Homesick Restaurant are substitutes for familial love, but they also represent a celebration and a coming together of community. The foods in both novels reflect a regional emphasis, one specific to the South. In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe whenever a meal is eaten, the narrator lists the menu, "fried chicken … mashed rootabeggars, collard greens, and hot, pale golden sweet potatoes." In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant food is given similar treatment. Ezra's menus list foods which might appear on a Southern family table, including "pan-fried potatoes, black-eyed peas, beaten biscuits genuinely beat on a stump with the back of an ax." Ezra sometimes lists several selections of entrees on a blackboard, while at other times he offers only one choice. More strangely, customers might order Smithfield ham and are served okra stew instead, along with Ezra's solicitous comment, "with that cough of yours, I know this would suit you better." Like a concerned mother, Ezra serves his customers those foods he thinks are for their own good and not necessarily what they want.

Another point of comparison between The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant deals not with food but with love. In both novels a three-sided love affair develops among the main characters and reveals "the destructive nature of Eros." McCullers' theme of the "isolated individual seeking escape from loneliness through love" is apparent in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and is reflected in the lives of Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon, and Marvin Macy. After two years with Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon falls in love and elopes with Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia's ex-husband. Love in this novel is the "dreadful result of an individual's isolation and its intensifier, rather than its cure." Furthermore, it is a force that drives the lover inward into deeper isolation and self-pity. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant Ezra is similarly betrayed in affairs of the heart, but his response does not lead to self-pity or worsening isolation. His brother Cody, jealous over anything that Ezra has, plots to lure Ruth, Ezra's fiancee and chief cook, away from the Homesick Restaurant. Cody succeeds in marrying Ruth, leaving Ezra confused and bewildered. However, Ezra bears no anger or resentment towards them, and he continues to cook and serve and nurture. Ezra persists in his struggle to unite his alienated family for at least one successful dinner, and ironically, with Cody's intervention, he finally succeeds.

Thus, in veins of Faulkner and McCullers, Tyler tells the story of the Tull family and how they finally come together in a delicate but perhaps lasting harmony. By focusing on different pieces of the past Tyler enables her characters to perceive different realities of themselves and each other. By showing these different perspectives, she illustrates a fundamental truth inherent in most families: although children grow up together in the same household, they have very different experiences within the family. Although they are exposed to much of the same family history, dynamics, and conflicts, they are shaped differently by these influences. Cody, Ezra, and Jenny Tull certainly prove this to be true. The pieces of the past they choose to remember are like parts of a torn photograph. Individually, the pieces reflect each one's perception of his or her experience with in the family. However, Tyler fits these pieces together to create a unified but complex portrait of individuals who are torn apart by the past and alienated by conflict, but who are a family nevertheless. Through the Tulls, Tyler shows that while families can be a source of anguish and pain, they also can provide a touchstone for remembering common pasts and for finding a sense of place, belonging, and, ultimately, oneself.

Like Faulkner and McCullers, Tyler demonstrates how the past is inextricably linked to the present and how family and community, as a natural extension of the family, are centers for the ironies of life—love and rejection, growth and entrapment, stability and conflict. Tyler resists the temptation to indict parents, particularly mothers, for the transgression of the past and for the ultimate shaping of offspring. Maternal ambivalence is a not uncommon thread in the fabric of human experience. However, as Tyler knows, it is just one factor in the development of the individual. Family and community also exert important influences that shape, direct, and complicate human existence. Tyler portrays this process in the Tull family, and in the end she renders a contemporary and enduring message about the nature of families, one that speaks with some measure of truth about all of our lives.

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