It was the title that brought my attention to Anne Tyler’s latest book, The Beginner’s Goodbye. (Had the book not been front faced I wouldn’t have noticed the title because the author’s name was larger than the title on the book’s spine.) Intrigued, I cracked the cover and read the synopsis on the jacket flaps (having nothing to read on the back cover—not even a review, blurb, excerpt, or quote—just a large photo of the author). The synopsis is ordinary enough (middle-aged widow must come to terms with his wife’s death) until it mentions the deceased wife making ghostly appearances. And so, it earned a place in my cloth library sack.
The story is about Aaron Woolcott who becomes a widow when his wife dies in a freak accident. He works at a publishing company that publishes a beginner’s series (hence the book title); however, there is no beginner’s guide for this novice widower. Dorothy, his deceased wife, begins to make brief ghostly visits, seldom speaking or even interacting with him at all, but each visit helps him with his journey of loss and recovery and teaches him how his emotional withdrawal impacts his relationships.
The story hooks you from the Kafkaesque opening sentence, “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” The supernatural element is not out of place in this otherwise realistic story about every day occurences following the death of a spouse. If anything, I believe Anne Tyler allows the reader to decide if Dorothy is a ghost or if Aaron imagines her to come to terms with his loss and find peace, especially since their last moment in life together was arguing about a box of Triscuits. Despite the heavy subject and ghostly encounters, the novel is still pleasantly light, witty, and realistic, not dark or over sentimental.
With only 198 pages, the novel has been criticized for being too short, but I don’t think it needs to be any longer than it is—especially given the lack of time people have these days to devote to reading. As a full-time worker and mother of a three-year-old with a list of chores to get done, I appreciated that I was able to quickly read this in my spare time. There is one drawback to the short length: I will miss the office staff of Woolcott Publishing. They all have quirks and unique personalities, like the characters of The Office. I couldn’t get enough of them. There was one blemish that I couldn’t quite get over. It was difficult to imagine Aaron middle aged. He seemed older, not because of his physical disability, but because of the way he acted. Other than that, I believe The Beginner’s Goodbye is a unique story, and all 198 pages are worth reading.