Back When We Were Grownups

Back When We Were Grownups

3.8 46
by Anne Tyler

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“A WONDERFUL NOVEL . . . Tyler’s eye and ear for familial give and take is unerring, her humanity irresistible. You’ll want to turn back to the first chapter the moment you finish the last.”
People (Page-Turner of the Week)

“STUNNING . . . ‘Once upon a time,’ the story begins, ‘there was

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“A WONDERFUL NOVEL . . . Tyler’s eye and ear for familial give and take is unerring, her humanity irresistible. You’ll want to turn back to the first chapter the moment you finish the last.”
People (Page-Turner of the Week)

“STUNNING . . . ‘Once upon a time,’ the story begins, ‘there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.’ . . . With Rebecca Davitch, Tyler has created a character who is brave enough to look back on her life and to imagine herself making different kinds of choices. Brave enough to wonder what honesty looks like, whether there is ever really a single distillation of self that is unshakable and true. . . . Anne Tyler has a talent for spinning out characters . . . who go on living long after their stories end.”
–The Baltimore Sun

“Her characters endear themselves to the reader with their candor and their wit and their simple decency. . . . The charm of an Anne Tyler novel lies in the clarity of her prose and the wisdom of her observations.”
–The Washington Post Book World

“RESEMBLES JANE AUSTEN’S PERSUASION IN THAT IT’S A NOVEL ABOUT SECOND CHANCES . . . The tension that keeps the narrative alive is our desire for Rebecca to get the recognition and respect that we know she deserves from her family, and from herself. It’s always good to have a character to root for.”
–San Jose Mercury News

“Maybe there’s something glorious to be said, after all, for companionship, common cause, and sanctuary. And what there is to say, Anne Tyler has been saying for decades, with gravity and grace.”
–The New York Times Book Review

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This novel is a treasure, a jubilant look at a woman who embarks on a modern search for herself with style, grace, and, yes, celebration.”
–The Miami Herald

“One does not so much read a Tyler novel as visit it. Her ability to conduct several conversations at once while getting the food to the table turns the act of reading into a kind of transport. . . . In a literary landscape that too often mistakes sarcasm for humor and self-reference for irony, an Anne Tyler novel, brimming with the real thing, calls for a toast.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

Washington Post Book World
A universe so consistent, so familiar, so perfectly delineated in all its mildness that the most startling thing is the pleasure it provides.
In her deeply moving and perfectly syncopated new novel, Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler presents a stunning portrait of fifty-three-year-old Rebecca Davitch, a "wide and soft and dimpled" woman whose style of dress edges "dangerously close to Bag Lady," whose hair naturally assumes a "pup tent" shape and whose compulsive goodness has become the source, especially of late, of much eloquent soul-searching. Increasingly, Rebecca has been thinking about the past—thinking about how, at twenty, she was already "engaged to be engaged," and remembering her years as a college student with dreams of her own doctorate degree. All this before being swept away (or was it that she allowed herself to be swept away?) by a man several years her senior. Only six years into their marriage, her husband was dead, leaving Rebecca with his three daughters, their own infant and a crumbling hospitality establishment, The Open Arms, which only she seems equipped to keep on its ramshackle feet. Images of Rebecca's younger self come flitting back. She had been dignified, she decides. She had been serene. She wasn't the sort to be organizing picnics and parties, to be lassoed with a nickname, to be belting out improvised toasts on all occasions, but that is the woman she had become. "Once upon a time," the story begins, "there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person."

The book follows the marvelously drawn and complex Rebecca as she retraces and reimagines her past, and as she then turns back to the present. "Wasn't it strange," Rebecca wonders at one point, "how certain moments, now and then—certain turning points in a life&3151;contained the curled and waiting seeds ofeverything that would follow?" What if she'd taken other paths at the forks in her road? What if she had married the man she had been engaged to be engaged to? What if she had been less relentlessly jolly? Back When We Were Grownups is Tyler's fifteenth novel, and she is still not scrimping on wackiness and wit, on sentences of shocking originality, on wisdom. She is still layering on the quirkiness so that she can meticulously peel it back. There's not a flat line in this book, not a single simple character, not a moment that isn't tapped for all its glorious possibilities. There is a party on almost every page, and there is also the party's aftermath. This is storytelling at its best and most breathtaking. Tyler, an acknowledged master of the form, is living up to her well-earned reputation.
— Beth Kephart

(Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
On the first page of Tyler's stunning new novel, Rebecca Davitch, the heroine (and heroine is exactly the right word) realizes that she has become the "wrong person." No longer the "serene and dignified young woman" she was at 20, at 53 Rebecca finds she has become family caretaker and cheerleader, a woman with a "style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady." So she tries to do something about it. In the midst of her busy life as mother, grandmother and proprietor of the family business, the Open Arms (she hosts parties in the family's old Baltimore row house), Rebecca attempts to pick up the life she was leading before she married, back when she felt grownup. She visits her hometown in Virginia, locates the boyfriend she jilted and renews her intellectual interests. But as Rebecca ponders the life-that-might-have-been, the reader learns about the life-that-was. At 20, she left college and abandoned her high school sweetheart to marry a man who already had a large family to support. A year later, she had a baby of her own; five years later, her husband died in an auto accident, and she was left to raise four daughters, tend to her aging uncle-in-law and support them all. And a difficult lot they are, seldom crediting Rebecca for holding her rangy family together. Yet like all of Tyler's characters, they are charming in their dysfunction. And much as one feels for Rebecca, much as one wants her to find love, it's difficult to imagine her leaving or upsetting the family order. Tyler (The Accidental Tourist; Breathing Lessons) has a gift for creating endearing characters, but readers should find Rebecca particularly appealing, for despite the blows she takes, she bravely keeps on trying. Tyler also has a gift genius is more like it for unfurling intricate stories effortlessly, as if by whimsy or accident. The ease of her storytelling here is breathtaking, but almost unnoticeable because, rather like Rebecca, Tyler never calls attention to what she does. Late in the novel, Rebecca observes that her younger self had wanted to believe "that there were grander motivations in history than mere family and friends, mere domestic happenstance." Tyler makes it plain: nothing could be more grand. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Family Davitch—dazzling and daunting, dismal and dysfunctional—arrives in Tyler's delicious l5th novel (A Patchwork Planet). But first meet Rebecca, who, on her way to somewhere less fateful, accidentally wanders into the midst of this Baltimore bedlam and stays for dinner. And beyond, way beyond, and in the process keeps the compulsively discordant Davitches from disintegrating as a family. Not that any of them would ever dream of thanking her for it. At the age of 19, Rebecca marries Joseph Aaron Davitch, 13 years her senior, a union that makes her the instant stepmother of three dark-haired, dark-complected, moody, broody Davitch daughters. In due time she adds to the collection another with the same coloring, disposition, and contentious attitude, as if the genes in her own pool had drowned themselves en masse, cowed by the Davitch invasion. When Joe dies in an automobile accident, Rebecca continues to inherit: an ancient relative by marriage who somehow comes to live with her, plus the Open Arms, a once-elegant, now shambling rowhouse, site of "party-giving for all occasions," the family business. With pluck, resourcefulness, and cleverness she seldom gets credit for, she keeps that, too, from disintegrating. Unhesitatingly, the self-centered Davitches bring their not-inconsiderable problems to her and apply the solutions she suggests, while resenting any attempt she makes, no matter how minor, to edge out from under. At 53, then, in typical Tyler fashion, Rebecca Holmes Davitch suddenly asks herself if she has "turned into the wrong person"—a serious question, and the burden of the novel. To which a clear-eyed, entirely sensible Tyler answer issupplied. Packed with life in all its humdrum complexity—and funny, so funny, the kind that compels reading aloud. A masterful effort from one of our very best.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.52(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.69(d)

Read an Excerpt

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.

She was fifty-three years old by then—a grandmother. Wide and soft and dimpled, with two short wings of dry, fair hair flaring almost horizontally from a center part. Laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. A loose and colorful style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady.

Give her credit: most people her age would say it was too late to make any changes. What's done is done, they would say. No use trying to alter things at this late date.

It did occur to Rebecca to say that. But she didn't.

On the day she made her discovery, she was picnicking on the North Fork River out in Baltimore County. It was a cool, sunny Sunday in early June of 1999, and her family had gathered to celebrate the engagement of Rebecca's youngest stepdaughter, NoNo Davitch.

The Davitches' cars circled the meadow like covered wagons braced for attack. Their blankets dotted the grass, and their thermos jugs and ice chests and sports equipment crowded the picnic table. The children were playing beside the river in one noisy, tumbling group, but the adults kept themselves more separate. Alone or in twos they churned about rearranging their belongings, jockeying for spots in the sun, wandering off hither and yon in their moody Davitch manner. One of the stepdaughters was sitting by herself in her minivan. One of the sons-in-law was stretching his hamstrings over by the runners' path. The uncle was stabbing the ground repeatedly with his cane.

Goodness, what would Barry think? (Barry, the new fiance.) He would think they disapproved of his marrying NoNo.

And he would be right.

Not that they ever behaved much differently under any conditions.

Barry had a blanket mostly to himself, because NoNo kept flitting elsewhere. The tiniest and prettiest of the Davitch girls—a little hummingbird of a person—she darted first to one sister and then another, ducking her shiny dark cap of hair and murmuring something urgent.

Murmuring, "Like him, please," maybe. Or, "At least make him feel welcome."

The first sister grew very busy rummaging through a straw hamper. The second shaded her eyes and pretended to look for the children.

Rebecca—who earned her living hosting parties, after all—felt she had no choice but to clap her hands and call, "Okay, folks!"

Languidly, they turned. She seized a baseball from the table and held it up. No, it was bigger than a baseball. A softball, then; undoubtedly the property of the son-in-law stretching his hamstrings, who taught phys ed at the local high school. It was all the same to Rebecca; she had never been the sporty type. Still: "Time for a game, everybody!" she called. "Barry? NoNo? Come on, now! We'll say this rock is home plate. Zeb, move that log over to where first base ought to be. The duffel bag can be second, and for third . . . Who's got something we can use for third?"

They groaned, but she refused to give up. "Come on, people! Show some life here! We need to exercise off all that food we're about to eat!"

In slow motion they began to obey, rising from their blankets and drifting where she pointed. She turned toward the runners' path and, "Yoo-hoo! Jeep!" she called. Jeep stopped hugging one beefy knee and squinted in her direction. "Haul yourself over here!" she ordered. "We're organizing a softball game!"

"Aw, Beck," he said, "I was hoping to get a run in." But he came plodding toward her.

While Jeep set about correcting the placement of the bases, Rebecca went to deal with the stepdaughter in the minivan. Who happened to be Jeep's wife, in fact. Rebecca hoped this wasn't one of their silly quarrels. "Sweetie!" she sang out. She waded through the weeds, scooping up armfuls of her big red bandanna-print skirt. "Patch? Roll down your window, Patch. Can you hear me? Is something the matter?"

Patch turned and gazed out at her. You could tell she must be hot. Spikes of her chopped black hair were sticking to her forehead, and her sharp, freckled face was shining with sweat. Still, she made no move to open her window. Rebecca grabbed the door handle and yanked it—luckily, just before Patch thought to push the lock down.

"Now, then!" Rebecca caroled. "What's all this about?"

Patch said, "Can't a person ever get a moment of peace in this family?"

She was thirty-seven years old but looked more like fourteen, in her striped T-shirt and skinny jeans. And acted like fourteen, too, Rebecca couldn't help thinking; but all she said was, "Come on out and join us! We're starting up a softball game."

"No, thanks."

"Pretty please?"

"For Lord's sake, Beck, don't you know how I hate this?"

"Hate it!" Rebecca cried merrily, choosing to misunderstand. "But you're wonderful at sports! The rest of us don't even know where the bases go. Poor Jeep is having to do everything."

Patch said, "I cannot for the life of me see why we should celebrate my little sister's engagement to a—to a—"

Words appeared to fail her. She clamped her arms tight across her flat chest and faced forward again.

"To a what?" Rebecca asked her. "A nice, decent, well-spoken man. A lawyer."

"A corporate lawyer. A man who brings his appointment book to a picnic; did you notice his appointment book? Him and his yacht-looking, country-club-looking clothes; his ridiculous yellow crew cut; his stupid rubber-soled boating shoes. And look at how he was sprung on us! Just sprung on us with no warning! One day it's, oh, poor NoNo, thirty-five years old and never even been kissed so far as anyone knew; and the next day—I swear, the very next day!—she pops up out of the blue and announces an August wedding."

"Well, now, I just have a feeling she may have kept him secret out of nervousness," Rebecca said. "She didn't want to look foolish, in case the courtship came to nothing. Also, maybe she worried you girls would be too critical."

Not without reason, she didn't add.

Patch said, "Hogwash. You know why she kept him secret: he's been married once before. Married and divorced, with a twelve-year-old son to boot."

"Well, these things do happen," Rebecca said drily.

"And such a pathetic son, too. Did you see?" Patch jabbed a thumb toward the children by the river, but Rebecca didn't bother turning. "A puny little runt of a son! And it can't have escaped your notice that Barry has sole custody. He's had to cook for that child and clean house, drive the car pool, help with homework . . . Of course he wants a wife! Unpaid nanny, is more like it."

"Now, dearie, that's an insult to NoNo," Rebecca said. "Any man in his right mind would want NoNo for her own sake."

Patch merely gave an explosive wheeze that lifted the spikes of hair off her forehead.

"Just think," Rebecca reminded her. "Didn't I marry a divorced man with three little girls? And see, it worked out fine! I'd be married to him still, if he had lived."

All Patch said to this was, "And how you could throw a party for them!"

"Well, of course I'd throw a party. It's an occasion!" Rebecca said. "Besides: you and Biddy asked for one, if I remember correctly."

"We asked if you planned to give one, is all, since you're so fond of engagement parties. Why, Min Foo's had three of them! They seem to be kind of a habit with you."

Rebecca opened her mouth to argue, because she was almost positive that Patch and Biddy had requested, in so many words, that she put together a picnic. But then she saw that she might have misinterpreted. Maybe they had just meant that since they knew she would be planning something, they would prefer it to be held outside. (Oh, the Davitch girls were very unsocial. "I guess you're going to insist on some kind of shindig," one of them would sigh, and then they would show up and sit around looking bored, picking at their food while Rebecca tried to jolly things along.)

Well, no matter, because Patch was finally unfolding herself from the minivan. She slammed the door behind her and said, "Let's get started, then, if you're so set on this."

"Thank you, sweetie," Rebecca said. "I just know we'll have a good time today."

Patch said, "Ha!" and marched off toward the others, leaving Rebecca to trail behind.

The softball game had begun now, at least in a halfhearted way. People were scattered across the meadow seemingly at random, with Rebecca's brother-in-law and Barry so far off in the outfield that they might not even be playing. The catcher (Biddy) was tying her shoe. The uncle leaned on his cane at an indeterminate spot near third base. Rebecca's daughter was sunbathing on first, lounging in the grass with her face tipped back and her eyes closed.

As Patch and then Rebecca came up behind home plate, Jeep was assuming the batter's stance, his barrel-shaped body set sideways to them and his bat wagging cockily. NoNo, on the pitcher's mound, crooked her arm at an awkward angle above her shoulder and released the ball. It traveled in an uncertain arc until Jeep lost patience and took a stride forward and hit a low drive past second. Hakim, Rebecca's son-in-law, watched with interest as it whizzed by. (No surprise there, since Hakim hailed from someplace Arab and had probably never seen a softball in his life.) Jeep dropped his bat and trotted to first, not disturbing Min Foo's sunbath in the least. He rounded second, receiving a beatific smile from Hakim, and headed for third. Third was manned by Biddy's . . . oh, Rebecca never knew what to call him . . . longtime companion, dear Troy, who always claimed it was while he was fumbling a pop-up fly at age five that he first realized he was gay. All he did was wave amiably as Jeep went trundling past.

By that time, Barry had managed to locate the ball. He threw it toward Biddy, but she was tying her other shoe now. It was Patch who stepped forward to intercept it, apparently without effort. Then she turned back to home plate and tagged her husband out.

Patch and Jeep might have been playing alone, for all the reaction they got. Biddy straightened up from her shoe and yawned. NoNo started clucking over a broken fingernail. Min Foo was probably unaware of what had happened, even—unless she'd been able to figure it out with her eyes closed.

"Oh," Rebecca cried, "you-all are not even trying! Where is your team spirit?"

"For that, we need more than one side," Jeep said, wiping his forehead on his shoulder. "There aren't enough of us playing."

To Rebecca, it seemed just then that there were far too many of them. Such a large and unwieldy group, they were; so cumbersome, so much work. But she said, "You're absolutely right," and turned in the direction of the river. "Kids!" she called. "Hey, kids!"

The children were hopping in an uneven line a good twenty yards away, beyond a stretch of buzzing, humming grass and alongside flowing water; so at first they didn't hear her. She had to haul up her skirt again and slog toward them, calling, "Come on, everybody! Come and play ball! You kids against us grownups!"

Now they stopped what they were doing (some version of Follow the Leader, it seemed, leaping from rock to rock) and looked over at her. Five of the six were here today—all but Dixon, the oldest, who'd gone someplace else with his girlfriend. And then there was Barry's son, what's-his-name. Peter. "Peter?" Rebecca called. "Want to play softball?"

He stood slightly apart from the others, noticeably pale-haired and white-skinned and scrawny in this company of dark, vivid Davitch children. Rebecca felt a tug of sympathy for him. She called, "You can be pitcher, if you like!"

He took a step backward and shook his head. Well, no, of course: she should have offered him the outfield. Something inconspicuous. The others, meanwhile, had broken rank and were starting toward her. "Not It, not It," the youngest child was chanting, evidently confused as to what softball was all about. Patch and Jeep's three (wouldn't you know) were vying to be first at bat. "We'll draw straws," Rebecca told them. "Come on, everybody! Winning team gets excused from cleanup after lunch."

Only Peter stayed where he was. He was balanced on a low rock, alert and motionless, giving off a chilling silence. Rebecca called, "Sweetie? Aren't you coming?"

Again he shook his head. The other children veered around her and plowed on toward the playing field, but Rebecca gathered her skirt higher and pressed forward. Long, cool grasses tickled her bare calves. A cloud of startled white butterflies fluttered around her knees. She reached the first rock, took a giant step up, and leapt to the next rock just beyond, teetering for a second before she found her footing on the slick, mossy surface. (She was wearing rope-soled espadrilles that gave her almost no traction.) So far she was still on dry land, but most of the other rocks—Peter's included—turned out to be partly submerged. This meant that the children had been disobeying instructions. They'd been warned to stay away from the river, which was unpredictably deep in some spots and wider than a two-lane highway, not to mention icy cold so early in the season.

Peter kept as still as a cornered deer; Rebecca sensed that even though she wasn't looking at him. For the moment, she was looking at the scenery. Oh, didn't a river rest your eyes! She sank into a peaceful trance, watching how the water seemed to gather itself as it traveled toward a sharp bend. It swelled up in loose, silky tangles and then it smoothed and flowed on, transparent at the edges but nearly opaque at the center, as yellow-green and sunlit as a bottle in a window. She drifted with it, dreaming. It could have been a hundred years ago. The line of dark trees on the opposite shore would have looked the same; she'd have heard the same soft, curly lapping close by, the same rushing sound farther off.

Well. Enough of this. She tore her gaze away and turned again to Peter. "I've got you now!" she told him gaily.

He took another step backward and disappeared.

For a moment, she couldn't believe what had happened. She just stood there with her mouth open. Then she looked down and saw a turmoil in the water. A small, white, big-eyed face gulping air and choking. A frantic snarl of thin, bare, flailing arms.

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