Anne Tyler | Critical Review by John Sutherland

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Anne Tyler.
This section contains 702 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Sutherland

SOURCE: "Lucky Brrm," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 5, March 12, 1992, pp. 23-4.

In the following excerpt, Sutherland discusses the humility of Ian, the main character of Tyler's Saint Maybe, and calls him "the accidental hero" of the novel.

Anne Tyler's stories are set in Baltimore, a city which many readers will neither know nor feel guilty about not knowing. That there will be many readers of Saint Maybe, however, is a certainty. It is Anne Tyler's 12th novel, and she has a loyal and growing band of admirers. Her last effort, Breathing Lessons, won a Pulitzer and the title before that, The Accidental Tourist, was made into an Oscar-nominated film in 1988. Flattering comparisons with Eudora Welty are now routine.

On the face of it, Tyler's subject in Saint Maybe—what is a good life?—is as unprepossessing for a novelist as her favorite Maryland setting. Novels about inconspicuously good men—Dr Primrose, the Rev. Robert Elsmere, Sorrell Sr—are not much imitated by today's fashionable writers. But Saint Maybe is told in an artfully off-hand way which teases the reader into close engagement while suggesting that Tyler herself is only just this side of sarcasm. (One of the few facts she has released about her life is that she was brought up in a Quaker commune and didn't much like enforced sanctity.) The control of tone in Saint Maybe is masterly, and apparently effortless. So, too, is the control of a difficult chronology. The novel covers twenty-five years in a self-consciously spotty way. Unlike most contemporary novelists, Anne Tyler likes titled chapters which could stand if they had to as independent stories. The technique gives the impression of a narrator dipping into the primary narrative pudding, almost absentmindedly, yet always coming up with a plum.

In 1965, as Saint Maybe opens, the Bedloes of Waverly Street, Baltimore, have 'an ideal apple-pie household: two amiable parents, three good-looking children, a dog, a cat, a scattering of goldfish'. American Eden. But the younger son, Ian, makes a spiteful remark to his brother Danny, suggesting that Danny's wife has been unfaithful. Two suicides and the disorder of the apple-pie family result. Paradise lost. The older Bedloes get sick and cranky. The children are disturbed. We are not told, but presumably the pets also have a bad time of it. Inspired by a chance visit to the Church of the Second Chance, Ian resolves to atone by works with the aim of achieving complete forgiveness. Just 19, he drops out of college to work as a carpenter, takes over the charge of his orphaned nephews and nieces, and generally fights the good fight. Finally, having re-established the Bedloes as a happy American family, the 42-year-old Ian marries blissfully and makes some children of his own. Paradise regained.

Ian is, as the title proclaims, a modern saint (perhaps). His is the good life. But as he thinks when someone congratulates him: 'There was no call to make such a fuss about it.' These are the novel's last words and one has to ask if it's worth making the fuss that a 337-page work of fiction represents. Does Ian merit this kind of attention? He has no obvious charm, no noteworthy characteristics of any kind. He never says anything interesting or thinks anything profound. He owns six books, all on self-improvement. He is not even a particularly competent carpenter (but then he wonders if Christ was—all that talking he did). As his fiancée tells a friend, he has only slept with two women in his life, 'his high-school girlfriend before he joined the church and then a woman he dated a few years ago, but he felt terrible about that and vowed he wouldn't do it again.' Ian himself does not want to be noticed—or at least not by the kind of woman Anne Tyler is, a smart writer of books. The Accidental Tourist is built round an analogous idea—a travel writer who hates travelling, and whose guides supply a kind of damage control system for those forced into it against their wishes. Ian, we may say, is the accidental hero of a novel—a character who implicitly upbraids his creator for making so much fuss about him.

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This section contains 702 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Sutherland
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