What’s it all about?:
‘It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon…’
This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she and Red fell in love that day in July 1959. The whole family on the porch, relaxed, half-listening as their mother tells the same tale they have heard so many times before.
And yet this gathering is different. Abby and Red are getting older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them and their beloved family home. They’ve all come, even Denny, who can usually be relied on only to please himself.
From that porch we spool back through three generations of the Whitshanks, witnessing the events, secrets and unguarded moments that have come to define who and what they are. And while all families like to believe they are special, round that kitchen table over all those years we see played out the hopes and fears, the rivalries and tensions of families everywhere – the essential nature of family life.
What did I think?:
This was my first Anne Tyler book and I was really looking forward to it having heard some great things from other reviewers and friends and noticing that it had been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2015. It tells the story of the Whitshank family, four generations in fact and begins in 1994 where Abby and Red Whitshank have just received a queer telephone call from one of their sons, Denny who is calling to tell them that he’s gay. On hearing his father’s reaction, he hangs up on them and Abby is distraught, believing that he will now deliberately distance himself from them.
This is the first inkling we get as readers that Denny is a personality to be handled with kid gloves. He comes across as quite a bitter character (for reasons we are told later on in the novel) and is somewhat the black sheep of the family. He has never held down a “proper” job for a long period of time, tends to jump feet first into unsuitable relationships, manages to get someone pregnant at a young age and lives as far away as he possibly can from the family hub.
The hub for the family is a beautiful large house which was passed down to Abby and Red from his parents Linnie May and Junior, the latter restoring it to such a high quality for another family and then was delighted when the family could not stay there as he jumped at the chance to move himself and Abby in. The house is almost a character in itself as it shelters and protects the four generations of Whitshanks that stay there and if houses could talk…. it would be bursting with the secrets it knows.
Of course life is unpredictable and all families have their problems which is why the children get together to discuss what should be done about Abby and Red. Unfortunately their mother has been experiencing little episodes where she goes out wandering and then comes to with no recollection of what she has been doing and how she got there. All the children have their own personal issues or extenuating circumstances but it is finally decided that Stem, his wife Nora and their children will move into the house and assist Abby and Red as they see fit.
Out of the blue our black sheep Denny suddenly arrives at the house and he is incensed that he wasn’t included or considered in the discussions (even though the other children had no idea how to get hold of him!) and believes that he and not Stem should be the one to take care of his parents. Again, we find out the reasons behind this later on in the novel. So, the big house which should be filled with love and laughter is not exactly a warming and welcoming haven. Even Abby, a considerate and peaceful person is starting to get slightly irritated with Stem’s wife Nora taking over everything and it takes a lot to ruffle her feathers.
When Red experiences a mild heart attack the children find themselves in very different circumstances and there is an awful possibility that for the first time in their family, the large house may have to be sold. The author also takes us back in time before Abby and Red to explore the relationship between Red’s mother and father, Linnie May and Junior and, as with a lot of this novel, nothing is as it appears to be on the surface.
As this is my first novel by Anne Tyler, I don’t really have much to compare this with but what I did get was a beautiful family saga filled with substance and decorated with drama. It’s not fast paced by any means and if you’re looking for action, perhaps this isn’t your sort of book but I found it a pleasantly moving and captivating tale. The strength of this novel lies in the characters who when we leave them almost feel like old friends in that they are so authentic. I also loved that Anne Tyler wrote a novel where the family is not picture perfect – it made the characters themselves very relatable and filled the pages with the sort of tension and excitement that we see in our own families from year to year.
After taking a look at my trusty Kindle, I actually found a couple of Anne Tyler books that I had forgotten I had bought, hooray! So, I’ll definitely be reading some more of her work and I can finally say that now I see what all the fuss is about.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):