Guest Review: DIGGING TO AMERICA by Anne Tyler

EDIWTB guest reviewer Nancy sent in the following review of Anne Tyler’s latest, Digging to America:

TylerThe wonderful thing about novels by Anne Tyler is that Tyler fans pick them up knowing exactly what to expect – and yet not knowing at all what to expect. What we know we’ll get is a familiar suburban Baltimore setting and a rainbow of odd, quirky, charismatic and unforgettable characters. What we don’t know is just who they will be or what they will do in the course of the novel.

Tyler’s latest work, Digging to America, is surely one of her most appealing. With a small cast of characters and a relatively finite storyline, it has a cozy feel. The plot is simple enough and the themes accessible, but at the same time thought-provoking. In a word, classic Anne Tyler.

The novel begins with two families at the Baltimore airport late one August evening in 1997. Both are awaiting the arrival of baby girls adopted from Korea. After the big-picture drama of the babies being handed to their parents, the two families are straggling out of the airport when one family – the Donaldsons – rather casually makes an overture to the other family to get together in the future. The families connect a few months later, touching off what becomes a lifelong connection between the two groups, hallmarked by the yearly “Arrival Party” in which they commemorate the anniversary of the girls’ arrival from Korea each year.

What I love about this novel is Anne Tyler’s marvelously light touch. She seems to have a sixth sense for who her readers are and what level of background information they need. For example, she rightfully assumes that anyone likely to be reading this book has witnessed at least two or three international adoptions in the past few years, and she spares us the belaboring descriptions of what is involved. She treats the parents’ decision to adopt with equal dexterity – brief mention is made of each couple’s situation with infertility, but again, Tyler assumes her audience is familiar with both the basic pragmatics and emotional landscape of the issue, and moves forward accordingly with the story.

Tyler narrates the first eight years or so (as the girls grow older, she becomes less specific about their ages) in the girls’ lives as the members of the two families develop into increasingly interesting characters. Here is Tyler’s second great strength: her ability to avoid stereotypes and furnish us time and again with characters we’ve never quite seen before. Despite their first names, Brad and Bitsy Donaldson are not two-dimensional yuppies: like real people, they bear some of the classic earmarks but have plenty of their own distinguishing characteristics. The same is true of the other set of parents, Sami and Ziba Yazdan: though in the airport they appear to be timid immigrants, they too move in their own well-depicted character circles, as do each of the grandparents. As with real people, it is a mistake to assume you know exactly who any of these characters are or what they will do.

The theme of the novel is what being American means: to two infants who arrive from overseas and immediately “become” American by virtue of adoption; to a young man like Sami, raised in the U.S. by immigrant parents and equally adept at speaking flawless Baltimore-inflected English and making fun of American culture; to Maryam, Sami’s mother, who nearly every day contemplates the many dimensions of her foreignness until another character suggests that perhaps her various levels of estrangement are merely part of being human, and not being Iranian in America.

One negative customer review on Amazon states that “Every time I thought something was going to happen, nothing did.” I can’t say this is unfair criticism, but no one ever accused Anne Tyler of writing potboilers. Readers drawn to captivating descriptions of the most quotidian aspects of family life will not be disappointed by this novel – and will probably be delighted.

Thanks for the review, Nancy! I’ve read a few Anne Tyler books in the past – Ladder of Years, Back When We Were Grownups – and will definitely add this one to the to-read list.