‘The Beginner’s Goodbye’ serves as a field guide to one couple’s starter marriage in Anne Tyler’s most recent outing

April 30, 2013

The Beginner’s Goodbye, the 2012 novel by accomplished writer Anne Tyler, begins with something of a feint.

“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted,” writes the author of The Accidental TouristBreathing Lessons and Saint Maybe.

But Dr. Dorothy Rosales, the late wife of narrator Aaron Woolcott, hasn’t exactly returned from the dead. And her — let’s call it a manifestation — turns out to be a much less prominent component of Woolcott’s tale than the opening line suggests.

While The Beginner’s Goodbye is certainly not a tale of the supernatural, neither is it the love story that a plot outline of the book might suggest. The story moves from a table-setter to Rosales’ death and Woolcott’s tortured, slow initial recovery from this sudden blow. Then the rather prickly and stand-offish narrator delves into his courtship with the equally (or perhaps more?) prickly and stand-offish Rosales.

Only then, more than halfway through this slender volume — fewer than 200 pages, plus a 10-page reader’s guide in the 2013 trade paperback I had — does the late Rosales begin appearing to the bereaved widower.

The title The Beginner’s Goodbye is patterned after a series of self-help books released by a Woolcott-family-owned publishing company. That’s appropriate, because this somewhat puzzling short book is less a traditional novel than a meditation on the grieving process.

But for all its quirks, Tyler serves up her usual highly polished brand of writing, and her characters — although somewhat limited in their range of emotional response — are clearly delineated. The Beginner’s Goodbye is not only enjoyable in its own right, it’s full of philosophical meat for both the serious reader and those of a more superficial bent. Tyler and high-end literature aficionados should enjoy this short book, and it has enough quirky appeal to delight others as well.

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