A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler
The Stephen King of suburban life
The opening has the page turning intrigue of a thriller (set in a train station for good measure) and Anne Tyler's great ability is to smoothly integrate that into a story about ordinary family life.
Nothing exceptional happens in this novel. That's the point. In contrast to the sort of literature that has become such a complex of intellectualisms, where the subject mater is exaggerated and artificial, this story is all about the low level dynamics that exist in all families. The characters mostly work for an odd job company or are pensioners. The train becomes a metaphor for the journey of life and its unexpected destinations.
This is a sort of submerged plotting where everything resolves and the action is pulled along but without anything overt (that opening was a trick, which Tyler uses elsewhere). The suddenness and turnings are embedded into the ordinary life of the characters like cherries in a sponge. The opening might get you to expect a big chase or maybe a gun fight, but you end up in a domestic drama.
The ending can still satisfy when this sort of plotting is done well like in On Green Dolphin Street, but in this case it felt a little flat for me. For submerged plotting to work it has to be heart wrenching or heart warming. I hadn't predicted the ending, but it's not a major surprise.
The main reason why I'm so down on the ending is that the character who comes out badly isn't as bad as all that I found the circumstances debatable, and I felt deflated for her as well as pleased for the protagonist.
However, the book succeeds on its own terms. She's the Stephen King of suburban life and as such is an exceptional writer. She has the art of making characters who would otherwise be on daytime television as deep and meaningful as the people in Jonathan Franzen novels.
I also watched The Accidental Tourist (US link), the only one of Tyler's books to have been made into a film. The same techniques apply but the ending was much stronger. For that reason I'll definitely read a few more Anne Tyler novels.
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