Back When We Were Grownups


Back When We Were Grownups

By Anne Tyler '61.

Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

274 pages, $25.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” So begins Anne Tyler’s fifteenth novel, Back When We Were Grownups. But don’t be tricked by the fairy-tale tone: This once-upon-a-time adventure neither veers toward the fantastic nor preaches a moral code. Rather, Back When We Were Grownups chronicles fifty-three-year-old Rebecca Davitch’s flirtation with the tempting and often destructive what-if line of questioning that can lead to mid-life crisis or worse. What if I hadn’t married Joe Davitch, she wonders. What if I hadn’t thrown over my high-school sweetheart? Where would I be today? More importantly, who might I have been?

If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, must it be true that the unlived life isn’t worth examining? Though a widow, on paper Rebecca has it all—a roof over her head, a loving family, her own business, and a gaggle of grandchildren. But scratch the surface and the plaster falls in chunks from the ceiling, her family is a tag-team of stepchildren and in-laws, and business is touch and go.

When she dreams of traveling on a train with a tall teenage son she never had, Rebecca is taken back thirty years, to a fork in the road she decides sealed her fate and ripped her from a predictable, organized life to the messy, neurotic world of the Davitches: the day she shed her life as a small-town girl, engaged-to-be-engaged to the tow-headed Will Allenby, and dashed into a short but sweet marriage to the dark and handsome Joe Davitch, thirteen years her senior. Suddenly, the only child found herself a full-fledged member of a moody, unruly family and the stepmother of three little girls.

Rebecca did her part to lend a hand in the family business of hosting parties on the ground floor of the Davitches’ Baltimore row house. To her own surprise, Rebecca, a tentative bride, became the telephone person, fielding calls from clients and phoning the liquor vendors and handymen; she was better suited to the party business than the Davitches themselves. Just before Joe’s untimely death, she had her own daughter, Minerva, nicknamed “Min Foo” for her fringe of dark hair and squinty eyes. All the Davitches had nicknames—Biddy for Elizabeth, Patch for Patricia, NoNo for Eleanor. In fact, when Rebecca joins the family, she’s christened “Beck.”

The Davitches’ penchant for nicknames is just one of many indicators Rebecca misreads. Instead of recognizing the unconscious welcoming the nickname implies, Rebecca latches onto “Beck” as evidence of having forked the wrong way. The woman she’s become, she decides—a roly-poly, cheerful grandmother who wears baggy clothes and throws parties for a living, God forbid!—would be unrecognizable to the old Rebecca.

The search for the old Rebecca provides Tyler both a convenient roadmap and the occasion for romantic tension and humor. With Rebecca’s selective memory hard at work, we’re led to believe the old Rebecca was the more inspiring and intellectual. She cut a regal swath, she remembers, wearing her flaxen braids pinned to the top of her head and working long quiet hours in the library with young Will. In an attempt to connect with her roots, Rebecca takes a short visit home, where her mother, a finicky woman who regards the Davitch clan with haughty skepticism, insists that Will—not Joe—was her soul mate: “The two of you had so much in common; you were so much in love; you understood each other so well…. I used to say, ‘It’s just as if they knew each other from some previous incarnation. They’re both such old, wise souls.’ ” Coming from a mother with an outlook so narrow and judgment off the mark, one wonders why Rebecca doesn’t drop the idea to search out old Will in the first place.

But curiosity overcomes her, and Rebecca finds Will teaching at his alma mater, where she had left him three decades before. (Rebecca fails to notice that this, too, might be a bad sign.) Her knack for accommodating anyone and everyone allows her to put up with Will’s obvious shortcomings for far too long.

Interestingly, it is just this talent that she herself reviles: It’s not the haphazard dream of a teenage son that shifts her focus to the unlived life, but the feeling that she is playing a role instead of living. “It seemed she was constantly mustering enthusiasm for her family’s engagements and weddings and births, their children’s straight A’s and starring roles and graduations. Sometimes, for lack of any other reason, she proposed a toast to Thursday. ‘To Thursday once again, and so many of us together! To good food and good talk, and lovely summer weather!’”

But Rebecca is clever, quick on her feet, and not at all the superficial ringleader she imagines herself to be. Instead, she greases the wheels at parties, both professional gatherings and—more importantly—Davitch family get-togethers. With gliding charm, she avoids the pitfalls of hosting parties, never coming across as aggressive, obtuse, interfering, or annoying. It’s no surprise that Joe’s wise brother claims she saved the family business. One might go so far as to say that after Joe rescued her from the “ingrown, muted, stagnant, engaged-to-be-engaged routine,” she turned around and saved the Davitches. An unfounded fear that Joe had married her for her usefulness dissolves as Rebecca learns to revel in her well-deserved pride.

As is always the case with an Anne Tyler novel, Back When We Were Grownups unfolds gently and is a breeze to follow. One might even make the mistake of thinking the book was as easily written as it is read. But the careful reader will notice spikes of shrewdness and suggestion, and respect Tyler’s risks. Look at the unwieldy Davitch crew. In less adept hands, introducing and sustaining interest in the twenty-odd characters would prove impossible.

But Tyler manages to use the cast to reflect the sensation of being plunked down in the middle of a sprawling family. Together, the Davitches are worthy of a collective Oscar for best supporting actor. That’s no mean feat. Fittingly, this book is already a blockbuster.

Guckenberger '93, former fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly's online journal Atlantic Unbound, is a case writer for the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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