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Pearl Tull is dying. She's eighty-one, and still in possession of her senses, although she finds it hard to speak. As she lies in her bed, she's aware of her middle-aged bachelor son Ezra being there; but as she's nearly blind, she can't actually see him. Her thoughts drift back to the past. She thinks of her oldest son Cody, remembering how she and her husband Beck decided that one child was enough, until Cody developed croup. Back in 1931 it was quite a serious condition and they had decided it would be better to have another child, just in case something happened to Cody. However Cody lived, and after Ezra arrived they worried about him too, so Jenny was born.
Of course Pearl never stopped worrying about her children; she realised eventually that each child simply led to more worries rather than being a potential replacement for an older sibling. And as she ponders their childhood, she thinks back to her own life and the difficulties she had with the children. Cody is an extravert, pushy and materialistic, who is nonetheless irrationally jealous of his younger brother. Ezra is a quiet, slow-moving person, who doesn't have an unkind word for anybody, although he can be extremely stubborn at times. Jenny is bright, efficient and mostly cheerful, loving both her brothers and often clashing with her mother.
And so the Tull family are introduced with their different personalities in the first chapter. The rest of the book follows them as they grow up. It's a nice example of a 'circular' novel: a book which starts with a situation (Pearl on her deathbed) and then back-tracks to events leading up to it, only returning to the original scenario in the final chapter.
I used to find books of this sort frustrating. I would race through them, trying to find what came next, and would feel cheated if there were only a few pages coming chronologically after the first scene. But as I've grown older, I've begun to appreciate this thoughtful style of writing which looks at people's backgrounds, and which doesn't give any big surprises at the end. Anne Tyler (a prize-winning American novelist) is an expert at this kind of character-based novel which gives readers a series of glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, made extra-ordinary by the astuteness of her observations.
One of the pieces of blurb on the back of the book announces that 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' is 'Funny, heart-hammering, wise...' I think that's a bit of an exaggeration, personally. There's certainly some gentle humour in places, but nothing I would have called funny. Nor did I find any of the book to be 'heart-hammering'. We know in the first chapter that Pearl lives until she's over eighty, and that her three children have survived whatever illnesses and traumas they experienced when they were young. One is at her deathbed, and another arrives soon afterwards, so they haven't even been estranged. There are a few mild tensions in the book, but nothing that made my heart speed up - and it doesn't take much for me to feel disturbed.
As for wise - well, there's certainly some wisdom in the writing, in the way Anne Tyler so cleverly draws the relationships within the family, and gradually reveals more and more depth to them. There's wisdom too in the gentle way she changes viewpoints, so we see differing perspectives without any abrupt break. The book starts with Pearl's thoughts, but gradually we see more and more behind the eyes of each of her children, and it works well. I could relate to Pearl as a generic mother, to Ezra as the quiet yet immovable character, and to Jenny as a busy, fairly helpful person. But I never did quite get into Cody's mind, nor understand his strange and sometimes irrational behaviour when relating to Ezra.
It's not gripping, it's not particularly moving, it's not exciting, and it's not really humorous. But it's well-written, it's a good reflection on family life, and it's a pleasant way to while away a few hours. It's based in the USA, but I didn't find that jarring as I do in some American novels. It's not my favourite Anne Tyler book, but it's one to keep and I expect I'll read it again in a few years.
'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' was first published in 1982, and has been reprinted several times since then. Cover price for the current paperback edition published by Vintage is £6.99, or £5.59 at Amazon.co.uk. It's been produced in a large print version and also on audio-tape, and there are several older versions of the book available from the Amazon marketplace, costing anywhere between a penny and nearly forty pounds!