Several times recently, I've gotten into conversations about how long one must wait before giving up on a book. One rule of them is one hundred pages less one's age. (If I make the century mark, I can even skip the preface.) I've been reading long enough, though, to know that I am often rewarded for sticking with a book.
Anne Tyler's novel The Beginner's Goodbye begins by letting the reader know that the protagonist's wife has returned from the dead, venturing through town with him in plain view. I've read enough magical realism and fantasy to suspend my disbelief and read on. (In fact, looking over my past month's reading, I find lots of supernatural elements--the ghosts of the native potter and her tribe in Gin Phillips' Come in and Cover Me, for example, and the life-sized dog visiting Winston Churchill in Mr. Chartwell, to name a couple).
In this novel, the narrator Aaron Woolcott comes across early on as less than likable. He and his unmarried sister run their family's vanity press, which has its own line of how-to books, along the lines of the Dummies guides, perhaps just a little more superficial, hence the book's title. Aaron is disabled, relying on a cane most of the time, and even in his own account comes across as socially awkward, manipulative, and grumpy.
He married Dorothy Rosales, a radiation oncologist a few years older than he, whom he met as part of his "research" for one of their Beginners books. Aaron doesn't seem to find any fault with their relationship until after her death (when a tree in the yard falls on the house, killing her). As he carries on with his life, aware of and often annoyed by the solicitous treatment of others, he reexamines the marriage.
After the accident, Aaron moves back into his childhood home where his sister Nandina lives, unwilling to enter his damaged home even to retrieve his clothing, wearing instead clothes far out of date from years before. He contracts for repairs, using the business card of the only contractor he encounters, and doesn't even go to the house to discuss the progress or to make decisions, expecting the man to meet him at Nandina's house instead, leading to a romance for his sister.
Along the way, through the planning meetings at the publishing company, Aaron introduces his quirky co-workers, some of whom try to help him move on in his grief. Aaron's epiphany--if it can be called such--comes only when Dorothy begins to reappear, giving him a different perspective on their life together, subtly convicting him in areas where he must at last realize he fell short.
For a time,I had trouble liking Aaron. By the end of the book, I realized that Aaron had trouble liking himself. I'm glad I rode out the journey with him.