Back When We Were Grownups

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An irresistible new novel from Anne Tyler. At 53, Rebecca Davitch- mistress of The Open Arms, a crumbling 19th-century row house in Baltimore where giving parties is the family business-suddenly asks herself whether she has turned into the wrong person. Is she really this natural-born celebrator; joyous and out-giving?

Certainly that's how Joe Davitch saw her 30-some years ago. And that's why this large-spirited older man, a divorce with three little girls, swept her into his ...

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An irresistible new novel from Anne Tyler. At 53, Rebecca Davitch- mistress of The Open Arms, a crumbling 19th-century row house in Baltimore where giving parties is the family business-suddenly asks herself whether she has turned into the wrong person. Is she really this natural-born celebrator; joyous and out-giving?

Certainly that's how Joe Davitch saw her 30-some years ago. And that's why this large-spirited older man, a divorce with three little girls, swept her into his orbit. Before she knew it, she was embracing his extended family (plus a child of their own) and hosting endless parties in the ornate, high-ceilinged rooms where people paid to celebrate their family occasions in style.

But can Beck (as she is known to the Davitch clan) really recover the person she has left behind? A question that touches us all-and one that Anne Tyler explores with characteristic humor and wisdom in a novel one wishes would never end.

As always with Anne Tyler's novels, once we enter her world it is hard to leave. But in Back When We Were Grownups she so sharpens our perceptions and awakens so many untapped feelings that we come away not only refreshed and delighted, but also infinitely wiser.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Nineteen-year-old Rebecca didn't just fall for Joe Davitch, she drowned in his turbulent family during 30-plus years of marriage that squelched her once-ardent idealism and ambition. Now, at 53, she resolves to set things right in Back When We Were Grownups, a wise, moving, and sublimely lyrical novel from the Pultizer Prize-winning author of The Accidental Tourist, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.
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.
From The Critics
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.
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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345477248
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/26/2004
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 4.20 (w) x 6.80 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis in 1941 but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated at nineteen from Duke University and went on to do graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University. This is Anne Tyler's fifteenth novel; her eleventh, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore.


Anne Tyler has had a very active imagination all her life. When she was a young girl, she would spend an hour or two after being put to bed every night fantasizing that she was a doctor. She imagined conversations with patients, and pictured their lives as she did so, considering both their illnesses and the intricacies of their backgrounds. She constructed little mental plays around these characters that she would whisper to herself in the dark -- much to the chagrin of her brother, with whom she shared a room. "[H]e used to call out to our parents, ‘Anne's whispering again!'" she once told Barnes & As much as she may have vexed her brother, she also believes that these fantasies helped her to develop into the beloved, award-winning novelist she is today.

Tyler's work is characterized by a meticulous attention to detail, a genuine love of her characters, and a quirky sense of humor. Her public persona is characterized by its own quirks, as well. She refuses to grant face-to-face interviews. She has never publicly read from any of her books. She does not do book signings or tours. All of this has lent a certain mystique to her novels, although Tyler has said that her reluctance to become a public figure status is actually the result of simple shyness, not to mention her desire for her writing to speak for itself. Fortunately, Anne Tyler's work speaks with a clear, fully-realized voice that does not require unnecessary elucidation by the writer.

Tyler published her first novel If Morning Ever Comes in 1964, and that singular voice was already in place. This astute debut that tracks the self-realization of a young man named Ben Joe Hawkins displayed Tyler's characteristic wit and gentle eccentricity right off the bat. Harper's declared the novel "a triumph," and Tyler was on her way to creating an impressive catalog of novels chronicling the every day hopes, fears, dreams, failures, and victories of small-town Americans. Having come of age, herself, in rural North Carolina, Tyler had particular insight into the lives of her characters. Each novel was a little shimmering gem, winning her a devoted following and public accolades that more than compensated for her refusal to appear in public. Her novel Earthly Possessions, the story of a housewife who is taken hostage by a young man during a bank robbery, was released the same year she won an award for "literary excellence and promise of important work to come" from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The book also went on to become a television movie starring Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorff in 1999.

However, the most well-known adaptation of one of Tyler's novels arrived more than a decade earlier when The Accidental Tourist was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Geena Davis and William Hurt. Consequently, The Accidental Tourist is viewed by some as Tyler's signature novel, covering many of the writer's favorite themes: the push and pull of marriage, the appearance of a romantic eccentric, personal tragedy, and the quest to escape from the drudgery of routine. The Accidental Tourist won the National Book Critics Circle Award and hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller list.

Three years later, Tyler received the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons, which further explored themes of marriage and self-examination. Despite having won the prestigious Pulitzer, Tyler still refused to allow herself to be drawn into the spotlight. Quietly, contemplatively, she chose to continue publishing a sequence of uniformly fine novels, including Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, and The Amateur Marriage.

Anne Tyler's novel Digging to America reexamines many of her chief obsessions, while also possibly drawing upon a personal triumph -- her marriage to Iranian psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Mohammad Modarressi -- and the tragedy of his death in 1997. Digging to America follows the relationship between two families, the Iranian Yazdans and the all-American Donaldsons, as they become closer and closer and affect each other deeper and deeper over a succession of years. Digging to America is arguably Tyler's deepest and most profound work to date. It also delivers more of her peculiar brand of humor, which will surely please her longtime fans, thrilled that she continues spinning tales with the trademark attention to character that has distinguished her stories ever since she was a little girl, whispering to herself in the dark. Tyler may have decided to remain in the dark and out of the public eye, but the stories she has to tell have shed more than their share of light on the lives of her readers.

Good To Know

Tyler first began writing stories at the innocent age of seven. At the time, most of her yarns involved, as she has said, "lucky, lucky girls who got to go west in covered wagons."

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    1. Hometown:
      Baltimore, Maryland
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 25, 1941
    2. Place of Birth:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B.A., Duke University, 1961

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 fiancé.) 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.

She jumped onto the rock he'd been standing on, skidding slightly and bruising an ankle. She plunged in waist deep and gasped. (The water was so cold it burned.) First she grabbed Peter's wrist but lost it. Then she clutched blue denim. She hitched him up by the seat of his jeans and found the time, somehow, to consider how absurd this must look: a middle-aged woman plucking a boy from a river like a sack of laundry, hoisting him aloft for one split second before her muscles registered his weight and they both went under. But she still had hold of him. She kept her grip. She fought to thrust him above the surface even while she was half sitting on the bottom. Then she was up and struggling shoreward, stumbling and falling and rising and staggering on, hauling him by his armpits. (A good thing he was so undersized or she never could have managed, adrenaline or no.) Between his coughs now he was drawing huge, rough, scraping breaths, and once or twice he gagged. She dragged him in a bobbling way across the rocks to the grass, where she dropped him. She bent double to clear her head and noticed, in that position, how her skirt was streaming with water; so she collected a handful of hem and wrung it out.

Excerpted from Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler Copyright 2001 by Anne Tyler. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Reading Group Guide

1. It is upon Peter's second disappearance during the picnic that Rebecca first thinks: "How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who's not really me?" (p. 20, lines 33-34). Why does Rebecca's "identity crisis" begin at this particular moment in her life?

2. Did Rebecca "choose" her life, or is her life just an example of Poppy's observation: "Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you've got"? (p. 252, lines 1-2). Do people choose their identities, or do they just "end up" the way they are?

3. Rebecca asks her client: "Mrs. Border, have you ever stopped to consider what a marvelous purpose a party serves?" (p. 38, lines 17-18). How does Rebecca answer her own question? Would she answer it differently at the end of the novel?

4. What is the significance of Rebecca's "Freudian slip"--if it can be called that--when she tells Zeb that she is a "superficial" woman, when she really means "superfluous"? Is Rebecca either "superfluous" or "superficial"? Is superfluous a word one could use to describe any character in the book?

5. "[Zeb] had a theory that Min Foo's many marriages were her way of trying on other lives" (p. 29, lines 34-35). Is this the same as what Rebecca is trying to do? Is this a universal fantasy that Rebecca is living out? What might be Tyler's opinion of one trying to "go back to take the other fork in the road" or "trying on different lives"? What other examples can you find in Back When We Were Grownups thatprovide different ways to think about or define the concept of identity?

6. The opening words of the novel, "Once upon a time . . . , " recall the motif used in fables or fairy tales. In what ways does Back When We Were Grownups resemble a fairy tale or contain elements of the fairy tale or fable? Does Back When We Were Grownups have a moral?

7. Rebecca realizes the irony of the fact that the more she does for her family, the less she is appreciated. "It had occurred to her, often, that the way to win your family's worshipful devotion was to abandon them" (p. 87, lines 17-18). The reader learns a lot about how "Beck" feels about her family--but how does her family feel about her? Does it matter to Rebecca whether her family appreciates her or not? What does the book suggest about how family members treat one another generally in society?

8. How is marriage portrayed in Back When We Were Grownups? Are there marriages of convenience, or are there examples of marriage where both parties to the marriage are equally "useful" to each other, as Rebecca advises NoNo on her marriage to Barry (p. 246, lines 31-32)? Is Rebecca's advice to NoNo convincing to the reader? To Rebecca herself? Why do marriages fail: Joe and Tina's, Will and Laura's, and Min Foo's first two marriages?

9. How would you compare the different types of love explored in the book? With respect to Poppy, Rebecca observes: "Apparently you grow to love whom you're handed" (p. 157, lines 1-2). Is this applicable to the love Rebecca has for any of the other people in her life? In the case of her sons-in-law, Rebecca had promised that she would treat them differently than her mother treated Joe, and "she had kept her promise so faithfully that now she couldn't say for certain whether she truly loved her sons-in-law or merely thought she did" (p. 144, lines 23-25). Is there a practical difference for Rebecca? How do the other characters love Rebecca?

10. What is the significance of Tyler's ending the tale with Poppy's hundredth birthday party? What is really being celebrated?

11. Is the ending of Back When We Were Grownups anticlimactic or satisfying? Is the reader mad at or frustrated with Rebecca, or proud of her? At what point does the reader come to "recognize" the "real" Rebecca?

12. Can Rebecca be described as a heroine? A martyr? Is she an ordinary or extraordinary woman? When she realizes that she has brought the Davitches her "joyousness . . . [which] she had struggled to acquire . . . Timidly, she experimented with a sneaking sense of achievement. Pride, even" (p. 246, lines 31-36, to p. 247, lines 1-4). Is this her greatest achievement? What are Rebecca's failures?

13. Is there significance to Rebecca's dream about the boy on the train (p. 21, lines 1-17)? Why does she realize that Peter was the boy on the train at the moment that she does (p. 273, lines 32-33)? Is Peter her chance at creating a new life or identity? Is Rebecca's dream a metaphor for her "identity crisis, " and, if so, what does it tell us about how seriously to take her "identity crisis"?

14. What does "The Open Arms" symbolize? Is the name of Rebecca's house intended to be ironic? How might the dynamic of the Davitch family be different if their family business were something other than running a party facility out of their home?

15. How does Tyler develop the characters in her novel? Compare how certain characters, such as Poppy and Rebecca's mother, speak a lot, and others, such as Peter, say very little. How much do we learn about some of the lesser characters by the few words they say in the novel? How is Rebecca's character developed differently than the other characters?

16. What is the meaning of the title (p. 188, lines 11-17)? What does it mean to be "grownup, " and can Rebecca or any of the other characters be described as "grownups"?

17. Does the concept of "family" defy definition in Back When We Were Grownups? Might the reader wonder how Rebecca came to be so accepting of all of the assorted people she welcomes easily into her family? Is she rebelling against her own mother's intolerance, or simply filling the void of her lonely childhood?

18. For Rebecca, "the most memorable of the five senses . . . was the sense of touch" (p. 34, lines 28-29). The sense of taste also figures prominently in the book, invoked by the descriptions of the food served to Rebecca (p. 64, lines 8-9; p. 131; and p. 205) and Biddy's gourmet foods. What does Tyler achieve stylistically by invoking these senses, or any of the other three senses?

19. How would you characterize the conversations Rebecca has with her grandchildren? What do they reveal about Rebecca? For example: Rebecca tells Merrie about her dream (p. 49, lines 13-14), and she discusses Poppy's birthday party with Peter (p. 117, lines 20-35).

20. What is the significance of the descriptions of the lives and families of the workmen who frequent The Open Arms? Are they merely humorous interludes, or is their placement in the novel significant to Rebecca's progress in her search for her identity?

21. Is Tyler's choice of the motives of Robert E. Lee as the topic of Rebecca's college research project intended to be humorous? Ironic? Is Rebecca's realization about Lee's motives analogous to her own self-recognition, and, if it does invite such comparison, what does that tell the reader about how to view Rebecca's identity crisis? (p. 232, lines 6-23)

22. How do Tyler's descriptions of Baltimore, the scenery during the drive from Baltimore to Macadam (pp. 127-28), and the town of Church Valley, Virginia (pp. 57-61), affect the atmosphere and mood of the novel? Do they reinforce any themes of the novel? Is Rebecca's life like the once elegant street of Baltimore that "never reverses" (p. 47, line 1)?

23. What are Will's good qualities? Does the reader sympathize with Will? Like him or dislike him? What happened at the family dinner that made Rebecca "end it" with Will that night (p. 218, lines 6-8)? Is Will in fact the one who was "superfluous"?

24. In several places, two characters' conversational paths converge. (For example, p. 64, lines 30-31.) Where else does Tyler use this style to convey how people talk to each other--but don't seem to really hear each other? Are these realistic conversations? What does it tell us about the way people communicate?

25. How does Tyler achieve a balance between the celebratory and the mournful in Back When We Were Grownups? Does one tone dominate the other?

26. Rebecca frequently feels that she is untrue to her own nature. (For example, p. 183, lines 14-15; p. 69, line 24; and p. 162, lines 25-) Is Rebecca really a "fraud" (p. 39, lines 28-29), or is this a common character trait?

27. Rebecca explains that she refers to Min Foo as her daughter but still refers to the other girls as stepdaughters because "acquiring" stepdaughters was the most profound change in her life (p. 234, lines 15-27). Are any of the other characters shaped by such profound events in their lives? Is Rebecca's a typical or understandable way people deal with such profound life changes, or does it say something unusual or significant about Rebecca and her own situation?

28. When Rebecca and Tina discuss Joe's poor driving, Rebecca recalls Joe's bout with depression and the reader glimpses a little crack in the veneer of Rebecca's perfect memories of Joe (p. 97). Dare we think that Joe's death was a suicide like his father's, and, if the thought occurs to us, doesn't it occur to Rebecca too? Might there have been more "bad" memories that Rebecca has blocked out?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 46 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 46 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 12, 2010

    Ever wanted to have a life do-over?

    "Back When We Were Grownups" is not a new book. It was first published in 2001, made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 2004 and just recently I happily came across it.
    This is Anne Tyler's 15th book, however I'd never heard of her. I'm glad I picked this book up because it really makes the reader think about what would have happened had they taken a different path with their lives than the one they ended up choosing.
    Rebecca is a 53-year-old mother of four daughters and many grandchildren. She runs an in-home business hosting and catering parties for people in the Baltimore area. She inherited this business from her late husband, and she's not sure she even enjoys the work any longer. She certainly realizes the house that she lives in, the same house where the parties are hosted, is getting more run down by the day and something will have to be done about it soon.
    When Rebecca starts having a recurring dream of spending time with a young blonde-haired boy whom she strongly feels is her son, she mentions it to one of her daughters. The daughter tells Rebecca that she must be dreaming about the other path her life could have taken, and it must have included having a son.
    This idea gets Rebecca thinking about the point in which her life made a dramatic turn. She was in college, dating her life-long sweetheart Will, when she attends a party. During the course of the evening, the party's host, Joe, comes up to her and asks if she's enjoying herself. Rebecca takes one look at Joe and an immediate bond forms. The fact that he is thirteen years her senior and has three young daughters, nor the fact that Rebecca has a man she plans on marrying back at school doesn't seem to matter to either of them.
    After a short courtship, Rebecca leaves Will abruptly and marries Joe just a few weeks later.
    However, Rebecca and Joe's marriage does not last long. He is killed in a car crash just six years after they marry and Rebecca is left with the party hosting business and, now, four young daughters. She manages to live life, carrying on the family business, eventually turning into the matriarch of a large, eclectic family, until one day she is fifty-three years old and dreaming of a whole other life she could have had.
    On a whim, she decides to hunt Will down and see where he is at in life. After a rocky start, the two decide to spend more and more time together. Although Rebecca is very busy with the business and busy trying to manage all the family members and their various needy issues, she decides she does have time to have a life of her own after so many years of only doing things for other people.
    The idea that everyone has a life they could have had, completely different than the one they have now is very interesting. It is an idea that I'm sure everyone can relate to. We have all made deliberate choices that have turned out great or not so great. But for Rebecca, getting a chance to go back and have a do-over is a cool idea that most people don't get to, or don't want to do.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2004

    What was the point?

    This was my first Anne Tyler book, and will probably be my last. I finished it only because I can't stand to put a book down in the middle. The main character, Rebecca, was a whiny middle-aged woman who, instead of being grateful for what she had, was constantly wondering 'what if?' Now, I know we all wonder that at times, but enough is enough. When she does finally retrace her steps, leading her back to her high school sweetheart, nothing new happens, no epiphany of what could have been. Her step-daughters and her biological daughter are some of the most annoying characters that I have ever encountered. They are hateful, unappreciative, neurotic, and self-absorbed. This story left me with the feeling that I just wanted to smack them all and tell them to get a real life!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2004

    Absolutely Awful..

    I have heard good things about this author. This is the first of her books I have read. Apparently I chose the wrong one.She must be 'famous' for her other works because this story was depressing and pointless. I have never seen more boring characters.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2004

    No guts, no action, no revelations

    Maybe it's just that people in my age range can't relate w/the mid-life crisis 'drama' staged in this novel. While it flows well, it was boring. Nothing of substance seems to happen at all, no suspense, no thrills, no whitty banter. At best, it showed the difficulties of being broken up w/twice, heartache, uncomfortable situations. Yes, matriachs deserve appreciation for their efforts in maintaining some form of family harmony, but good god, could it be more mundane????? I recommend to skip it altogether. Sorry Anne, better luck next time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2003

    Not bad, but doesn't convert me to a Tyler fan

    I've never been much of an Anne Tyler fan, but they keep assigning her books in reading groups. Except for the first and last chapter, this is the most interesting Tyler work that I've read so far. The last chapter, however left me so disappointed that I wondered what the point was. [The story is amply recapped in other places, so I won't repeat it.] The first chapter reminded me of 'Can this marriage be saved?'. I kept imagining a counselor talking to the family members about the need to discuss expectations and what they really wanted and needed from one another. It was certainly easy to see why finding oneself with such a collection of unpleasant relatives would make Rebecca wonder where she went wrong. I was sympathetic to her attempts to figure out how else things might have gone and might yet go. I found much of this very true and funny and read it with great interest. Unfortunately, the ending was disappointing. Tyler left a lot of ends hanging; did she intend this to be a clever expression of ambivalence or was it just sloppy writing? Rebecca has by no means exhausted her possibilities, but I don't think we are to believe that she will continue to pursue them. I THINK that the end was supposed to be a dissolution of the tensions that had driven Rebecca, but really, nothing has been resolved. It reminds me of a television episode where one is supposed to believe that three minutes of discussion reconciles thirty years of misunderstanding and they lived happily ever after.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 28, 2013

    If yoiu are an older woman and sometimes wonder what life would

    If yoiu are an older woman and sometimes wonder what life would have been like had you choose a different path, then this book is for you. Wonderful charecters - Anny Tyler really weaves a good tail. I am a reader and this is on my top 100 books list.

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  • Posted February 6, 2010


    This was probably the most boring book I have ever read. I kept reading it, hoping that something would happen. I only finished it because I can't bear to leve a book half finished. I usually keep my books, but I donated this one to a cooperative shelf. It was my first Anne Tyler book, and I'm sure the last.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2009


    This book was just ok. It left me wanting more of a story, a better ending, It left me without closure, though I loved the characters and the voice of Blair Brown.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2007

    It relates to anyone who has read it.

    This book was exceptional. It was wonderful from the nutty characters, to one childs longing to connect to her dead mother. It expresses a childs need for their mother, or mother figure. How people will look for comfort in the strangest of places and find the comfort in themselves. It is a great book and I think everyone can relate to it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2004

    The road not taken

    I am my big reader. This is my favorite contemporary book of all time. Beautifully written. Critics may find it hard to get through beacuse it does not have a picture perfect ending and something is left to the imagination. A complex yet so simple a story. Give it a chance...this book and this author made me a reader. I typically take couple of weeks to finish a book, as I take my time. I read this in one day. A book full of lifes lessons by one of the best authors of our time!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2003



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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2003

    relax......... You're on Anne Tyler time

    Sit back and enjoy fellow readers because the master of family fun is back with a new novel for us to sit with for hours on end. Ms. Tylers excellent new novel allows us to relax and watch a family strangely like our own. Since her marriage to Joe Davitch, Rebecca has always felt out of place with her life. Until one day, at her thrid stepdaughters engagement party, she realizes she has turned into the wrong person. The discovery of this realizes that she has done nothing with her life since a party at colllege when a charming young man came up to her and said 'I can see your'e having a wonderful time' (she wasn't) She later married that man, and now, many years later, nothing has happened since. Not that she isn't happy with her stepdaughters Patch, No-No, and Biddy. And her own family Min Foo. But when Rebecca decides to change her life and the way people look at her, she finds out what she never knew was really there all along. This is the second novel I have read by Anne Tyler, the other being A Patchwork Planet. Tyler created very real characters, and we can be sure we know or have met them before. The wacky trials and tribulations of the Davitch Clan will have readers touched and smiling, thinking, 'I know that family. It's mine.' -Shane Fallon

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2003

    A Page Turner

    This was my first Anne Tyler and it definitely won't be my last. I sat down and nearly finished the whole thing in one sitting. Something about the main character, Rebecca kept me going. There was this need to see how she turned out. It was really beautifully written and the characters were so well developed and poignant. She has a way with names...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2002

    You are the characters...

    The thing I love about Anne Tyler is that she makes you feel like one of the characters, like it is your story playing out. Empathetic, fully engaging, quick-moving with good plot twists. A thoroughly enjoyable read reminiscent of Shade of the Maple by Kirk Martin.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2002

    Bootleg entry

    'Good Job!', by Erica Thompson-Gustalavi (Harcourt, Brace, Jowanowich) $24.74 Inspiring, uplifting tale of a typical soccermom of suburban N.J. as she deals with the exigencies of daily life, including simultaneous careers as a pediatric cardovascular surgeon, county court judge and investment banker. All while hubby is running his successful, 'Makurich', studying for the priesthood and running for mayor of Newark. Originally titled 'All Isn't Nearly Enough', it went through 7 rewrites while the author bore three children and finished a doctorate in geology from Brandeis. If the reader can tolerate the frequent typos (understandable in the light of multi-commitments and deadlines) and rather poor grammar and punctuation (the author was schooled post-1960's), she (preferably) is in for a real 'kick', as soccer does eventually enter into the family's crowded, high-achieving schedule. It's well-done, with good humor, unstinting optimism and resolve, especially the parts about dealing with career(s), three energetic, autistic children and a recent marital separation. A summer read to remember for a certain amount of time after the World Cup.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2002

    Breathtakingly human

    I tried The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons and could not get into Anne Tyler at all. This book blew away all my preconceived notions about Tyler's style. It is warm and witty and engaging. I nearly missed my subway stop, I was so absorbed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2002

    Could be Anne Tyler's best so far!

    Anne Tyler writes like Norman Rockwell paints: Wonderful characters that could live down the block from you, dealing with all of the things that life hands them. I have read every Anne Tyler novel to date, and up until I read this one, I think that 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' was my favorite. Every time Tyler comes out with a new book, it's guaranteed to be a treat and this one is certainly no exception.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2001


    I found this book to be boring

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2001

    A Great Read!

    Anne Tyler is one of my favorite authors, and she doesn't disappoint me with her newest novel. I didn't want to put the book down. The characters are quirky, yet so true-to-life! I could identify alot of family members with characters in this book. All of us wonder at one point or another in our lives who we really are or, what if...? I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2001

    A grand rich, subtle novel

    Anne Tyler continues to add to a body of work that shows compassion, love, and understanding of quirky yet ordinary people. Like herself probably, her characters mature in odd and wonderful, yet meaningful ways.

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