Back when we were Grownups (by Anne Tyler)

I like Anne Tyler's novels. Oddly enough, I didn't when I was first introduced to them, in my thirties. But now, some years later, I find them increasingly enjoyable. I had this one on my wishlist for a while, then managed to find it recently in a charity shop in the UK.

'Back when we were grownups' is Tyler at her best, in my opinion. It's about Rebecca, who is 53, and works as a party organiser in the USA. She also looks after her late husband's 99-year-old uncle, Poppy. She was widowed at a young age, but brought up three step-daughters and one daughter of her own.

Rebecca seems to enjoy having relatives trooping in and out of her house, and also babysitting her various grandchildren. Then one day, she suddenly starts to wonder what happened to her quiet, shy, teenage self, who was engaged to the geeky Will. This was before she fell in love with Joe, dropped out of college, abandoned Will, and adopted a much more extraverted and enthusiastic persona than she had previously. What, she wonders, would her life have been like if she had continued with her degree course, and married Will?

Caught up in these concerns, Rebecca is distracted, and tries to get in touch with people from her past. But alongside her thoughts and dreams, the present keeps intruding.

This book is typical Tyler; perhaps too slow-moving for some, and without a great deal of plot, but delightfully done. There's a lot of introspection, brilliant (if slightly caricatured) characterisation, and wry observations about everyday life. Her style is easy to read, yet surprisingly thought-provoking; I found that the people seemed real in my mind, and I thought about them at odd moments even when I wasn't reading. Some of the people are a bit shadowy and undeveloped, but others seem very clear.

In the early chapters of the book, there are a huge number of people introduced, which I found rather confusing. But they soon fell into place, mostly believable, with some inevitably having more major roles than others. The ending of the book was satisfying, as Rebecca finally works out what really matters to her, and why she is feeling so morose. She also finds a role for the future. I found it encouraging and certainly expect to read this again in a few years.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 10th July 2008

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