book Back When We Were Grownups

reviewed by John Hammond

Published in Issue No. 56 ~ January, 2002

Wondering about the lives we might have led must be a universal preoccupation,
for we know the plot of our lives could have gone in many other directions just
as easily. As Robert Frost’s famous “The Road Not Taken”
reminds us, one key choice can make “all the difference.” Anne Tyler launches
her latest novel, Back When We Were Grownups, with an intriguing “What
if?” using the familiar storybook language suggestive of fantasy, wonder, mystery,
and dream: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned
into the wrong person.” This story is about how Rebecca Davitch, the woman in
question, reaches this conclusion and what she discovers about herself and her
life as she explores her own “what ifs.”

Rebecca, known as Beck to the Davitch clan, made a pivotal decision in her
college days suddenly to leave her mostly platonic and studious boyfriend Will
Allenby, whom she seemed destined to marry, for a whirlwind courtship with the
older, more settled (divorced with three daughters) Joe Davitch. Tyler places
importance not only on this decision, but also on Joe’s first strong impression
of Rebecca when she makes her first Davitch family appearance at an engagement
party. He notices her laughing soon after they arrive and comments, “I see you’re
having a good time,” locking in an incorrect notion of her as easy-going, sociable,

Yet Rebecca had always been studious and thoughtful, like Will, and at heart
shy. In marrying Joe, she in fact has to learn to become sociable, for the family
business is renting out their large row house (“The Open Arms”) and organizing
other people’s prom, engagement, birthday, and other parties and celebrations.
So which is the real Rebecca, she finally begins to wonder, even as a grandmother
at age 53, long after Joe dies in a car accident and she has raised on her own
her four mostly difficult daughters, who have in turn started their own families.

Because the Davitch clan is large and noisy and in most cases self-centered,
she not only must learn to be sociable, but also to cater to everyone’s needs
except her own. She, in fact, has lost her original sense of herself, trading
it for another woman who now seems alien to her, offering rhyming toasts at
the endless stream of both family and professional occasions, constantly getting
the house repaired (her best confidantes are the plumber and roofer), supervising
the parties and often enough saving them from disaster, offering a consoling
ear to everyone’s problems, and constantly throwing herself into the breach
to heal hurt feelings or head off family quarrels.

After Rebecca suddenly wonders how she has become who she is, at a disintegrating
family picnic, she finds herself also wondering about the alternate life she
never lived. What if she had married Will instead? She begins a recurring dream
of riding on a train sitting next to a son she never had, whom she later even
names Tristram. “In her dream, she took it for granted that this tall, quiet,
gawky young boy belonged to her without question.” He shares her features, “and
most familiar of all was some quality in his expression, something hopeful and
wistful, some sense he felt a little bit outside of things. Didn’t she know
that feeling!”

Her imagining an alternate life contrasts with her daughter’s actually living
many alternate lives: “Her brother-in-law had a theory that Min Foo’s many marriages
were her way of trying on other lives. The first husband had been a professor
in his sixties, and Min Foo (age twenty-one) had turned into a settled faculty
matron.” Her second marriage was to a black man two years her junior and “she’d
become a young slip of a girl and taken to wearing a head-wrap,” followed by
her current husband Hakim, who “had her spangled with Muslim holy medals. Rebecca
liked Hakim, but she was careful not to get overly invested in him.”

How Tyler moves from Rebecca’s dreams to reality is part of the story’s considerable
charm, as is her impressive ability to sketch so many characters in the densely-populated
life Rebecca has entered in marrying Joe Davitch, with growing numbers of daughters-in-law
and daughter, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, step-uncles, step-aunts, and step-grandchildren.

Though she’s become the reasonable, calm center they all depend on to make
things right, Rebecca naturally feels like an outsider. This feeling is justified,
as late in the story celebrating Poppy’s 100 birthday she sees a family movie
(edited from old reels to videotape as a present) concluding with everyone’s
names appearing on cards. Though she is among those in the movie, her name is
not listed on the cards.

Tyler knows how to deftly develop a scene, including many laugh-out-loud moments.
When Rebecca sets up a private lunch with a possible suitor at the house, they
try to maintain the thread of a conversation as another conversation is going
on with the gardener and his assistant outside the open window. One claims you
can’t trust women and tells the story of how a woman friend’s ex surprised them
on his sooner-than-expected return from prison. When her own family arrives
sooner than expected, Rebecca resumes her caretaker role and gives up on her
own plans.

Where Tyler leads us in this delightful tale must not be spilled here, but
it can be said that the journey is worth taking, and the moments of pain and
family chaos (with several conversations and arguments usually going on at once),
and discovery are fully realized by one of our master storytellers.

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John Hammond is Director of Public Relations and teaches English at San Antonio College, where he organizes an annual Book Fair. He won the Writers Digest First Place Award for Poetry and has published his poetry in Southern Poetry Review, Journal of Popular Film, Wind, Epos, and elsewhere. He has written personal articles for various publications and published many book reviews for the San Antonio Express-News.