"People have always seemed funny and strange to me, and touching in unexpected ways. I can't shake off a sort of mist of irony that hangs over shake off a sort of mist of irony that hangs over whatever I see.... It just seems to me that even the most ordinary person, in real life, will turn the most ordinary person, in real life, will turn out to have something unusual at his center."
Anne Tyler, quoted in Washington Post, 10/22/03.
If Jane Austen were to cast her eye on 21st-century society, her observations might touch a nerve with contemporary novelist and short-story writer Anne Tyler. Author of the best-selling Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985), the Pulitzer Prize--winning Breathing Lessons (1988), and more than a dozen other novels, Tyler explores the motives, conflicts, and aspirations of middle-class families. Like Austen, whom she cites as one of her favorite novelists, Tyler hones in on the age-old preoccupations of courtship, marriage, child rearing, and familial responsibility. These concerns play out at ordinary events--births, family dinners, road trips, and funerals--usually in Baltimore and its environs. Tyler broadened her reach in Digging to America (2006), which explores culture clash, identity, and belonging from the perspective of an American couple and an assimilated Iranian family. The story nonetheless still features the insular suburban characters and domestic dramas we have come to expect. "One doesn't go to Tyler for the shock of the new. One goes to her for the pull of the old, because her preoccupations are more in line with, say, George Eliot's than Don DeLillo's" (Katharine Whittemore, "Ordinary People," Atlantic Monthly, 5/01).
Despite a focus on family life, there is nothing small about Tyler's Baltimore world and her ordinary people's lives. Her marvelous creatures may be wilder, less traditional, and more dysfunctional than Austen's passionate characters, but they ring just as true today as they might have two centuries ago. As Tyler's grandparents, wives, bachelors, and teenagers approach an understanding of their lives and of each other, they exhibit moments of quiet desperation. "In my childhood I was trained to hold things in, you see," says aging patriarch Daniel Peck in Searching for Caleb (1975).
"But I thought I was holding them until a certain time. I assumed that someday, somewhere, I would again be given the opportunity to spend all that saved-up feeling. When will that be?"
Tyler spent much of her childhood in North Carolina, and she follows the southern tradition. She credits Eudora Welty as her literary inspiration: "Reading Eudora Welty when I was growing up showed me that very small things are often really larger than the large things" (New York Times, 5/8/77). Critics note the influence of Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner as well. Tyler's novels, however, often lack the historical contexts that frame these southern writers' works. And, though quirky, her characters are not gothic, gritty, or alluring; her women are decisive and meddling, not vacillating and submissive, and her men, often repressed, are "accidental tourists" playing the roles of doctors, husbands, and even kidnappers. Instead of judging her imperfect creations, Tyler examines them with a cool, affectionate eye and guides them toward redemption and second chances--a recurring theme--as they search for ideal relationships.
Like many of the quietly eccentric personalities in her novels, Tyler had an unconventional upbringing. The only daughter and eldest of four children, Tyler was born on October 25, 1941, in Minneapolis. Her father was a chemist and her mother a social worker. During her childhood, her family, in search of a communal lifestyle, lived in a Quaker community in rural North Carolina. These years gave Tyler an appreciation of farming, crafts, carpentry, cooking, music, and books, and her eventual Southern literary flavor. When her family settled in Raleigh, Tyler attended her first formal school. She entered Duke University at age 16, where she studied with writer Reynolds Price, wrote her first short fiction, and won the Anne Flexner Award for creative writing twice. After graduating, she pursued a master's degree in Russian Studies at Columbia University, met Iranian psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi, whom she married in 1963, and started to publish her first short stories.
When her husband's visa expired, the couple moved to Montreal, where Tyler focused on writing. If Morning Ever Comes (1964) marked the first of her character-driven novels. The Tin Can Tree--and the birth of her first daughter, Tezh--followed a year later. In 1967, her second daughter, Mitra, was born. The family settled in Baltimore, the locale of many of Tyler's novels, in 1967. Throughout the 1970s, Tyler published five well-received novels, though none were commercial triumphs...