It’s been a very long time since I read one of Anne Tylers books and writing about family is one of the things she does best.
Mercy and Robin marry in 1940 and while Robin works long hours in the father’s plumbing business, Mercy raises the couples three children, Alice, Lily and David. They manage to go away on their one and only holiday in 1957 with the three children. The novel provides snippets of their lives until 2020 and this is one of the rare novels, I’ve read which talks about living with the pandemic, familiar to so many of us.
Mercy is also an artist and there are no prizes for her style of mothering, as it is at best basic. Alice picks up where her mother has left off by being the cook and carer of the younger two. The parents fail to see anything wrong with letting Lily, only fifteen, go out with a twenty-one-year-old man and Alice worries for her younger sister.
The novel skips time after the holiday, spanning such a lot of time that I failed to truly engage with any of the characters. Mercy was self-absorbed in her need for peace and quite as she slowly moved away from Robin to live in a loft above a garage, ostensibly to paint. Robin is left bewildered, isolated, alone and sad. No-one confronts Mercy and the family just seems to know she’s left despite the appearances. But that is how the family operates – nonconfrontational.
There’s a sadness throughout as Robin tries valiantly to hold onto a non-existent marriage too weak to do anything about it. Alice helicopters over her sister, Lily, sitting in judgement about her behaviour while David their brother is so remote that he may as well have been on another planet.
They are more a set of individuals living in their own worlds than a cohesive family unit and I wondered what was the point of it all. While there is no plot, it is a pure character study yet the characters weren’t particularly interesting enough to spend time with and Tyler doesn’t allow us to anyway. The reader never really gets close enough to anyone other than Mercy yet we still don’t understand her – I didn’t anyway.
The idea that family patterns can repeat is joyfully at odds with David who as an old man, a grandpa himself, gives rise to hope that he has out of them all, created a family whom he loves and is deeply connected to. And, he was surprisingly the one who shone through with hope for the future.
I’m glad I read this one.