Aaron Woolcott and Dorothy Rosales make an odd couple. At six feet four, Aaron towers over Dorothy, who is short and plump. He suffers from a slight physical disability, the result of a childhood illness, and an occasional stammer. She is brusque to the point of rudeness. When they meet, he is 24 and she is 32. Although they are professionally successful - Aaron is a publisher of beginner’s guides to life’s challenges, Dorothy is a doctor - both are socially awkward, which makes their love affair touching and funny (on their first dinner date, she turns up in her doctor’s white coat). It’s a mismatch made in heaven and they marry within four months of meeting. But their life together is cut short when Dorothy dies in a freak accident, leaving Aaron ill-equipped to cope with his loss. What he needs is a beginner’s guide to saying goodbye, which is when Dorothy suddenly re-appears. Can it really be her, or has she simply been conjured up by Aaron’s grief-stricken imagination? This is a bittersweet, utterly beguiling story of love and loss from a brilliant writer.
Anne Tyler published her first book in 1964 and, nearly 20 novels later, is widely acknowledged as one of America’s greatest contemporary writers of fiction, with high-profile fans such as John Updike, Nick Hornby and Craig Brown. There is nobody better at distilling drama from the everyday lives of ordinary, flawed people and turning it into engrossing stories.
The eldest of four children, Anne was born in 1941 and grew up in a Quaker commune in North Carolina, where her father worked as a chemist and her mother as a social worker. She has lived most of her adult life in Baltimore, which is where her novels are set.
Anne’s tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a 1988 Oscar-winning film starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. Her next novel novel, Breathing Lessons, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. In 1963, she married Iranian psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Modarressi, with whom she had two daughters, Tezh and Mitra, who is an artist and book illustrator. Her husband died in 1997.
1. Is the relationship between Aaron and Dorothy credible? What attracts them to each other?
2. Does their marriage have lessons for other couples?
3. Why does Aaron find it so difficult to come to terms with Dorothy’s death?
4. What do you think of Aaron’s ultimate assessment of their marriage? Is he right?
5. What finally allows him to move on?
6. What does the book say to you about grief and how to dope with it?
7. At one point Aaron says having children ‘would have made me too sad’. Do you understand what he means?
8. What’s the significance of the book’s title?
9. What do you think of the ending? Can you suggest other endings?
10. What does the future hold for Aaron?
When I was five years old, I thought I might grow up to be a doctor. This was because at night, when I couldn't get to sleep, my idea of fun was to draw my knees up to form a make-believe desk under what I liked to think of as my Campbell's-cream-of-tomato-soup-coloured blanket. Behind this desk I would greet a series of imaginary patients who came in with all sorts of complaints. ‘Good morning, Mrs. Smith,’ I would whisper into the dark. ‘What seems to be the trouble?’ And then I would whisper her answer in a completely different tone: ‘Well, Doc, it's this here daughter of mine. Her brother pushed her off the swing and broke her arm. For no good reason a-tall, can you believe it? We had to go and call the cops on him and have him hauled away.’
Quite often my patients' brothers were the source of their injuries. I may have been influenced by the fact that my brother Ty, fourteen months my junior, lay across the room from me under his own blanket, which was straight tomato soup as opposed to cream of tomato. Sooner or later, without fail, my office hours would be brought to an end by his calling out, ‘Mama! Daddy! Anne's whispering again!
But I dealt with other medical issues. Appendicitis, with the patient's family sobbing and swearing that from now on they would be more appreciative. Fainting spells, the unexpected birth of quintuplets (this was in era of the celebrated Dionne quins), gunshot wounds inflicted by a posse of angry lawyers. (I had lawyers confused with lawmen, I realise now.) Black eyes inflicted during passionate fistfights, with the participants continuing their arguments right there in front of my desk.
In later years, though, it emerged that I was unlikely to end up a doctor, since I turned out not to be very good at science. In fact, I wasn't sure how I would end up. As I grew older I listened wistfully to the ways other people earned their livings, in the hope that I would eventually stumble upon some sort of profession for myself. I heard about a man, for instance, who dove for shipwrecks off the coast of Florida. Weeks and months could pass with no results, but when he did find something, what a thrill! He never knew what might happen from day to day; at the least likely moment, some treasure might show up that he had never expected. Now, there was a profession for you. It sounded infinitely more exciting than being a secretary, or teaching kindergarten.
Except that even the briefest swim underwater tended to give me earaches.
I drifted through high school keeping busy with art classes, for lack of anything more purposeful. In college I majored in Russian because, during that early post-McCarthy era, it was the most outrageous subject I could conceive of. (I was warned that I might have my very own FBI agent following me around, although I'm sorry to admit that as far as I know, that never happened.) And then I got a job in a library ordering books from the Soviet Union, but to occupy my mind I wrote a novel in the evenings. And by and by, to my complete shock, the novel was accepted for publication.
At which point it occurred to me that back when I was playing doctor beneath my cream-of-tomato-soup blanket, it wasn't my patients' medical conditions that had interested me. It was their stories. And that in my own way now I, too, was diving for shipwrecks, and I was coming up empty-handed on some days but on other days, I was stumbling on treasures that I had never dreamed of.