Back When We Were Grownupsby Anne Tyler
Certainly that's how Joe Davitch saw her
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.
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 thencertain 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.
–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
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.58(w) x 9.53(h) x 1.13(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 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."
"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.
Meet the Author
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.
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Date of Birth:
- October 25, 1941
- Place of Birth:
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
- B.A., Duke University, 1961
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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"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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.