Two chapters in, I put seven copies of Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in my Amazon cart for Christmas and texted folks to say: I found your gift early! A few more chapters and I cleared my cart, sent a round of “Neverminds,” and poured a big drink. It’s not right to label this book “depressing,” but its engrossing depiction of unhappy people isn’t the cheeriest gift for a holiday that’s already awash in familial weirdness. (You still need to read it, though!)
At the outset, Pearl Tull is dying and cared for by her son, Ezra (the “good” son). Her mind slips back and she remembers her life, her marriage, and her children. The non-linear narrative follows the pattern of memory and builds a cohesive picture of Pearl across the opening chapter. Chapter Two picks up from the perspective of one of her children and we learn that Pearl is an unreliable narrator; she shapes events according to how she views herself, and the way she wants to be remembered. Each chapter follows a different member of the family. The truth is likely somewhere between Pearl’s version, and those of her children.
Most striking is how the main cast, Pearl and her three children (Cody, Ezra, and Jenny) feel so authentic. It’s not a matter of giving them the right number of flaws, unique voices, or relatable moments—it’s Tyler’s ability to craft events from multiple viewpoints that adds nuance to each character and situation. The characters build imperceptibly until you notice that you’re thinking of them as people. The writing is gorgeous and there isn’t a lot of fluff as the story spans Pearl’s life, her children’s, and the early lives of her grandchildren.
The family’s dysfunction stems from multiple places. The lazy answer is to say things take a turn when Beck, the husband/father, walks out when the kids are young. Pearl attempts to shield them with a charade that their father is on another sales trip, but they wise up and Beck’s departure becomes an unspoken thing in the house. When Cody, the oldest son, looks around Pearl’s room as a child:
Even the bedside tables were completely bare; and in all the drawers in this room, he knew, every object would be aligned and squared precisely—the clothing organized by type and color, whites grading into pastels and then to darks; comb and brush parallel; gloves paired and folded like a row of clenched fists. Who wouldn’t leave such a place? He straightened, feeling panicky. (42)
There are multiple passages that follow this pattern: a) description, b) insinuation that of course whatever happened has happened. How could it be otherwise?
[Pearl] feels that everything has been assigned, has been preordained; everyone must play his role. Certainly she never intended to foster one of those good son/bad son arrangements, but what could you do when one son is consistently good and the other consistently bad? What can the sons do, even? (191)
Pearl’s rigidity leaves a volatile and unpleasant legacy, but so many of her sections break my heart. The passage below has been rattling around my head for the last month. She’s a hard and difficult person, but Tyler’s refusal to cast her as the villain makes her compelling.
Often, like a child peering over the fence at somebody else’s party, she gazes wistfully at other families and wonders what their secret is. They seem so close. Is it that they’re more religious? Or stricter, or more lenient? Could it be the fact that they participate in sports? Read books together? Have some common hobby? Recently, she overheard a neighbor woman discussing her plans for Independence Day: her family was having a picnic. Every member—child or grownup—was cooking his or her specialty. Those who were too little to cook were in charge of the paper plates.
Pearl felt such a wave of longing that her knees went weak. (191)
And the title? Ezra runs a restaurant, the Homesick Restaurant, which sounds like a stellar place—the deepest mystery of this book is why his restaurant isn’t more successful, but I read it over my evening commute while hungry. You should see what Tyler’s elegant prose can do with food! The family repeatedly attempts dinner together at this restaurant, but it never works out. It’s amazing how so much of this book has the “it was always coming to this” vibe without the overall narrative becoming predictable.
It was true that once—to celebrate Cody’s new business—they had made it all the way to dessert; so if they hadn’t ordered dessert you could say they’d completed the meal. But the fact was, they did order dessert, which was left to sag on the plates when their mother accused Cody of deliberately setting up shop as far from home as possible. There was a stiff-backed little quarrel. Conversation fell apart. Cody walked out. (159)
Overall: 4.5 (out of 5). I took off a pinch for the flat scene at the end (flatness is probably the point), but the ONE time I wanted Cody to vent his anger, he switched to peacemaker mode. This is likely due to “character development” and I’m probably a bad person for wanting to see him yell at the end, but come on, Cody! I know this sounds like something you’d be assigned for English class, but it’s not as if teachers never luck out and assign something good. This is something you’d read for your favorite English class.