Aaron Woolcott is a haunted man — and very glad to be.
The narrator of Anne Tyler's 19th novel, The Beginner's Goodbye, begins his story thus: "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted."
When Dorothy Rosales suddenly shows up months after her death, is she a genuine apparition, or is Aaron imagining her — or having an emotional breakdown?
Answering that question is not what Tyler is up to in this novel. As she has in earlier novels, in The Beginner's Goodbye she is exploring the complexities of marriage and families and grief and the stories we tell ourselves about them: true, false and everything in between.
Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons and the National Book Critics Circle fiction award for The Accidental Tourist, and this novel, with its Baltimore setting and quirky cast, may remind you of both of them.
The Beginner's Goodbye even borrows its title from a bookish premise similar to that of The Accidental Tourist. Aaron is an editor for his family's small "gentleman's publisher," a.k.a. vanity press, which in addition to self-published yawners like My Years With the City Council also makes some profit from a Beginner's series, like The Beginner's Book of Kitchen Remodeling and The Beginner's Cancer.
Aaron meets his future wife while doing research for that last one. Dorothy is a radiologist who treats cancer patients, a plain-spoken, all-business Mexican-American without a trace of vanity. She was named for the girl in The Wizard of Oz, and that's the only whimsical thing about her. He falls for her instantly: "So I mostly spent my childhood fending off the two women in my life — my mother and my sister, both of them lying in wait to cosset me to death. . . . Is it any wonder I found Dorothy a breath of fresh air?"
The motive for all that familial cosseting is Aaron's disabilities; a case of what looked like the flu when he was 2 years old left him with a crippled arm and leg and a speech impediment. He does his best not to even acknowledge them, and his narrative voice is so clear and graceful that we almost forget about his speech problems. When Dorothy's first question to him is a blunt "What's wrong with your arm?" he's smitten.
The book begins not with their oddball courtship but with Dorothy's demise. Aaron isn't old enough to have concretely imagined her death — he's 35, she's 43 — so when a bizarre accident kills her, he is stunned by grief and shock.
At first he stays in their house, even though the accident destroyed half of it, willing himself to write thank-you notes for the flood of casseroles the neighbors leave on his doorstep. When staying there becomes impossible, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, into the house they grew up in and his boyhood bedroom: "My model airplanes still lined the shelves; my vinyl recordings of U2 and Tom Petty were still stacked beneath the stereo."
Since Nandina works at the publishing company too, she can now cosset him day and night, with help from the rest of the staff at work. It takes him weeks just to pull himself together enough to hire a contractor to repair the house; it's there, checking on the project's progress, that he first sees Dorothy, looking as solid as the sidewalk she stands on.
Her brief and unpredictable appearances continue, and Aaron longs for them, even though he tells us, "I have to say right now that who had permitted her (to appear) was not something I cared to dwell on. I am an atheist. Having her here in the first place had already shaken up more preconceptions than I could easily absorb."
That's the least of his problems. If Dorothy was named for the girl who landed in Oz, Aaron is a little bit Scarecrow, a little bit Tin Man and a little bit Cowardly Lion by turns.
Tyler paints a subtle and convincing portrait of Aaron's struggle with his grief. Despite the emotional weight of her subject matter, she treats it with a delicate hand, building the story not with melodrama but with quotidian details that ring true, like Aaron's heart-squeezing pain at a whiff of isopropyl alcohol, the scent of Dorothy's hands.
Aaron is a lifelong master of denial, and that both helps and hinders him in facing his wife's absence and the real nature of their marriage. And Dorothy's ghost helps him get there, and into a changed future, however real or unreal she might be:
"(P)ut yourself in my place," Aaron says. "Call to mind a person you've lost that you will miss to the end of your days, and then imagine happening upon that person out in public. You see your long-dead father sauntering ahead with his hands in his pockets. You hear your mother behind you calling 'Honey?' . . . You wouldn't question your sanity, because you couldn't bear to think this wasn't real."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.