Grandma wonders if it's ever too late

Fans of Anne Tyler will love - and recognize - her latest novel

Should Anne Tyler be arrested for self-plagiarism?

It's a question those of us who love her books worry about. The latest, "Back When We Were Grownups," won't do much to dispel our anxiety, but it's delightful: another simply told tale about the family responsibilities that burden and bless.

Once again, we're in Baltimore, and Beck is back (but not John Updike's. Tyler is in good company with that other self-plagiarist.) At 53, Beck Davitch can't fathom how she ended up at the center of this gangly family of needy people.

The novel opens during a picnic for the introduction of a step-daughter's new fiance. Beck is propelling her clan through the motions of socializing. "It seemed just then," she thinks, "that there were far too many of them."

In the middle of stirring up a softball game, she finds herself having to rescue a future step-grandson from the river. He doesn't need breathing lessons, but the shock of his near-death splash startles her into realizing that "she had turned into the wrong person."

Suddenly, she feels like an accidental tourist living on a patchwork planet of step-children, in-laws, and distant relatives. Having climbed the ladder of years since her husband's passing, grief has faded into sepia tones, but she realizes she's slipping down life, wondering if morning ever comes to a middle-age widow.

"She loved these children, every last one of them," the narrator explains. "They had added more to her life than she could have imagined. But sometimes it was very tiring to have to speak in her grandma voice."

Considering her life and its earthly possessions, she feels like an imposter. All she has is the crumbling mansion her husband left, along with the care of his ancient uncle. Her four grown daughters depend on her to keep the family ticking, but at the same time, they treat her like some trusty old clock winder.

For three decades, Beck has served as the irrepressible hostess of The Open Arms, a party service on the first floor of her home. There, people searching for celebration bathe in the kind of personal festivity that dinner at a homesick restaurant could never provide. But despite her success, it still strikes Beck as a fraudulent job, considering what a social misfit she is.

"Back When We Were Grownups" may be Tyler's quietest, gentlest novel, and in that way perhaps her most daring. Yes, tragedy once tore through Beck's life, but that was years ago, and it's not the focus of this story. She's no longer crippled by grief or guilt or loneliness. Instead, she's subtly troubled, nagged in that most universal way by the sense that her life might have been different.

Leaving her feet rooted in the details of the family business, Beck embarks on a celestial navigation, looking for her lost high school sweetheart, a sensitive young man she dumped 35 years ago.

Will Allenby has since become a man of comically precise regularity. He prepares a week's worth of chili for himself every Sunday evening - seven individual servings carefully arranged in the fridge. In every way, he represents for Beck the road not taken, open for passage once again.

Their renewed courtship provides the novel's funniest and saddest scenes, the sort of break-your-heart comedy that Tyler has perfected over 15 novels. As usual, her dialogue captures the near misses and non sequiturs of family talk with dead-on accuracy.

At her lowest moment, Beck thinks "her life was finished, but here she was, still circulating among the guests, a solitary splinter of a woman in the crowd." She discovers she can't, in fact, "return to that place where her life had forked and choose the other branch," but ultimately, that's not as important to her as learning to see "the little pleasures of everyday life."

Sitting with her late husband's uncle as he rambles on hysterically about plans for his 100th birthday party, Beck admits this isn't how she imagined her life. "But apparently," she thinks, "you grow to love whom you're handed."

A saint? Maybe.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor,

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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