In this issue:
Digging to America by Ann Tyler is an engaging read, even if it is fairly slim stuff. She is an exceptionally accessible writer, one who has the modern idiom down pat. At times this leads to a certain aura of shallowness – but then, if you’re reading for entertainment, not enlightenment, that’s hardly a worry.
Let Me Finish by Roger Angell is a book one could pick up and put down and string out for several days, except that it’s so much fun that I read it all of a sitting.
DIGGING TO AMERICA
by Anne Tyler, ©2006
published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York
277 pp (at 1.5 spacing of lines per page)
I find myself needing to indicate the spacing (see above), since the 1.5 setting seems to be used by more and more publishers.
Digging to America is a slight, perceptive novel, which in itself is not a bad thing, but I was strangely dissatisfied by its brevity. It took awhile for me to realize that the spacing of the lines had led me to expect something that might have intellectual heft to match its physical size. The use of the old, single-space pagination might have produced a slimmer volume which would have indicated that it is something close to a novelette, in which case I’d have approached it with revised expectations.
That said, the wider spacing is no doubt easier on the eyes, especially for those of us of a certain age. And Digging to America is an engaging read, even if it is fairly slim stuff.
Tyler presents us with the story of two families who meet in the Baltimore airport as they await the arrival of infant daughters, whom they have adopted from Korea. The Donaldsons are suburban, liberal, and eager to provide a bi-cultural upbringing for their daughter, Jin-Ho. The Yazdans are from Iranian immigrant families, and are determined to provide a thoroughly American childhood for their daughter, Sooki, whose name they promptly change to Susan.
The lives of the two families soon become inextricably intertwined, often in rather comical ways as Bitsy (Donaldson) and Ziba (Yazdan) become close friends. It is Bitsy who initiates “Arrival Day,” an annual celebration of the day the families met at the airport and received their daughters. Ziba insists that her family must host the second Arrival Day, and the Donaldsons are introduced to an enormous Iranian banquet, trumping the cake-and-ice cream event of the previous year. The celebrations go back and forth between the families, and since it is really for the parents’ delight, it is no surprise when Jin-ho (who has steadfastly refused to watch the video of the airport arrival) eventually announces that she hates Arrival Day.
Bitsy, who is over-the-top-earnest in her approach to motherhood (she researches the project endlessly), frequently offers gratuitous advice to Ziba, whose insecurities are thereby heightened. She turns anxiously to her mother-in-law, Maryam, for support. Maryam, ever respectful of the feelings of others, manages to tread carefully and with great dignity through the business of being a mother-in-law, a grandmother, and an affectionate friend to the Donaldsons, all the while being careful to preserve her own privacy. She is perhaps the most interesting character in this book, as Tyler gives her rather more dimension than the others.
Maryam’s romance with Bitsy’s widowed father, Dave, becomes the central focus of the last third of the book, and provides the author with a hopeful ending for her story. Somehow this part of the book feels almost like an add-on extender, and detracts from the central story (unless, of course, it is the central story, in which case it needs more explication!).
At times, Tyler’s depiction of the Donaldsons borders on caricature, especially in her repeated descriptions of Bitsy’s excesses. This makes Tyler’s sensitivity to the immigrant experience all the more surprising. She has remarkable insight into Iranian-American customs and traditions, as well as into the difficulties of feeling always on the outside, not only in America, but also in one’s native country, by dint of having left it.
She also gives us the not-so-surprising story of the two little girls who, despite Bitsy’s hopes, do not end up as best friends. Jin-Ho rejects her Korean heritage, which has, no doubt, been pushed at her too forcefully. She and Susan have little in common except for the adults around them.
This Book-of-the-Month Club selection is Anne Tyler’s seventeenth novel, one of which (Breathing Lessons) won a Pultizer Prize. She is an exceptionally accessible writer, one who has the modern idiom down pat. At times this leads to a certain aura of shallowness – but then, if you’re reading for entertainment, not enlightenment, that’s hardly a worry.