Tyler’s 20th novel (The Beginner’s Goodbye, 2012, etc.) again centers on family life in Baltimore, still a fresh and compelling subject in the hands of this gifted veteran.
She opens in 1994, with Red and Abby Whitshank angsting over a phone call from their 19-year-old son, Denny. In a few sharp pages we get the family dynamic: Red can be critical, Abby can be smothering, and Denny reacts to any criticism by dropping out of sight. But as Part 1 unfolds, primarily from 2012 on, we see Denny has a history of wandering in and out of the Whitshank home on Bouton Road just often enough to keep his family guessing about the jobs and relationships he acquires and discards (“ ‘Boring’ seemed to be his favorite word”) while resenting his siblings’ assumption that he can’t be relied on. This becomes an increasingly fraught issue after Red has a heart attack and Abby begins to have “mind skips”; Tyler sensitively depicts the conflicts about how to deal with their aging parents among take-charge Amanda, underappreciated Jeannie and low-key Stem, whose unfailing good nature and designation as heir to Whitshank Construction infuriate Denny. A sudden death sends Tyler back in time to explore the truth behind several oft-recounted Whitshank stories, including the day Abby fell in love with Red and the origins of Junior, the patriarch who built the Bouton Road home in 1936. We see a pattern of scheming to appropriate things that belong to others and of slowly recognizing unglamorous, trying true love—but that’s only a schematic approximation of the lovely insights Tyler gives us into an ordinary family who, “like most families...imagined they were special.” They will be special to readers thanks to the extraordinary richness and delicacy with which Tyler limns complex interactions and mixed feelings familiar to us all and yet marvelously particular to the empathetically rendered members of the Whitshank clan.
The texture of everyday experience transmuted into art.