Knopf, 2001
ISBN: 0375412530
Anne Tyler is a serious novelist. Back When We Were Grownups is the 15th novel in the career of a woman that can easily be called one of the great storytellers. As I write this review, I find myself wondering if she always knew she had something to say. Each novel, beginning with If Morning Ever Comes and finally to this one, embraces the reader in a fundamental way. While being distantly affectionate, endearing, and always well-meaning, her novels do indeed say something. Anne Tyler has a knack for stacking the building blocks of a story and for creating characters that seem to walk off the page.
        There are certain quintessential qualities readers have come to expect from an Anne Tyler novel. Readers find characters in search of something that the beginning pages of the book don’t make clear, the true selves of her people always seem blemished by their environment, the life they have found themselves living. Ms. Tyler’s stories always seem to bring us first closeness and then distance as we watch her characters alter their self-views. But the reader never has to worry about missing a step in the story. Ms. Tyler writes in such a way that we cannot help but care about her characters and where they are going. Rebecca Davitch in Back When We Were Grownups is no different. If the ink on the pages of Ms. Tyler’s novels were to wash away, somehow I believe her characters would stay and not lose any of their vibrancy. Ms. Tyler’s characters are real, real to her, real to the readers, and always loyal to the page.
        Rebecca Davitch, like so many of Tyler’s characters, is a disenchanted middle-aged woman who feels she has lost touch with her true self. She remembers her younger self and all that seems to have been lost. "I don’t read anymore, or discuss important issues, or go to cultural events," she says. A widow for some thirty years, Rebecca raised three stepdaughters and one girl of her own while trying to sustain a certain momentum within the circle of both her immediate and extended family. "Beck," as her family calls her, is the centerpiece to both her home and business called "The Open Arms". It’s an operation that could only be from an Anne Tyler novel, one that tries so hard to seem more than it actually is. Rebecca throws parties, squelches quarrels, proposes toasts, and always insists that everyone could be just a bit cheerier. But in truth, she herself is somewhat complacent, though no one stops to notice what she is or isn’t.
        Beck is the kind of woman who after a dinner with an old college boyfriend, looks in the mirror and decides that "her two fans of hair made her look like a Texas longhorn." But the impetus for this meeting with an old flame is the real heart of the story. Beck suddenly finds herself wondering if the life she is living is just her "fake" life. Perhaps her real life is waiting for her just beyond the horizon, a life that is less orderly and sedate. Did she choose the wrong path when she married a man thirteen years her senior with three children and an extended family that is somewhat unruly? Readers of Ms. Tyler know this question well; the main protagonists in most Anne Tyler novels ask this question: Did I truly take the right path in my life? In fact, this very question is what makes an Anne Tyler novel truly Tylerian and palpable to a lot of readers; at some point, we all ponder that question.
        Back When We Were Grownups isn’t fresh in the sense of the story line. This novel is similar to Tyler’s 1995 Ladder of Years. Like Delia, Rebecca feels invisible to the members of her family. They don’t see her as a something with a real human spirit, someone with her own set of dreams and aspirations; but as with Delia, it’s hard to imagine that these characters see her as "real" at all. Luckily, these women haven’t become invisible to themselves. While the two novels take different approaches to the problem, the driving force is the same.
        So what does the darling Beck do? She finds the ex-boyfriend, reads a couple of history books, and tries to convince her family that there’s more to her than just the perpetual smile they see. Any reader familiar with Anne Tyler’s work knows that her novels are almost always predictable in their endings; Back When We Were Grownups isn’t any different. But at least the question is answered for Beck and readers alike: "Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be."
        Back When We Were Grownups presents a good question, a good argument, and then a good answer. But it doesn’t go much beyond that and the story never veers from its intended path. Unfortunately, it stays that way; the feelings and lessons don’t go beyond the pages. In my opinion, a great story leaves some fragment behind in the reader’s mind, if anything Tyler leaves behind the shadows of many well-developed characters, but that’s not enough. Unfortunately, she seems to use those perfectly sculptured characters to ask the same question over and over. But readers aren’t interested anymore, they already know the answer to that one.
         Back When We Were Grownups is as good as Ms. Tyler gets. No one would argue that this author has a strong hold and a quiet control over her writing. But in this reviewer’s opinion, the grip is just too strong. Her novels have lost something of the spontaneity, the excitement of a young voice; readers are left with monotony and that’s hardly ever good in a novel. Back When We Were Grownups is a good book, but good in a way that leaves the reader less than satisfied.