The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

I first encountered Anne Tyler during a west week on the Isles of Scilly, and so the first thing I must say is hooray for holiday cottages with well stocked bookshelves. Which book it was that I read first I really don’t remember, but I do remember that I loved it, and that I went on to read pretty much everything that she wrote.

I love the way that she gently illuminates ordinary lives, quietly showing that everyone has their own story. Her last few books haven’t quite lived up to my expectations, but I am pleased to be able to say that The Beginner’s Goodbye has. It’s not quite her best, but it is her best in quite a while.

It tells the story of Aaron Woolcott, a middle-aged man who had become a widower when his wife, Dorothy, was killed by a tree that fell on their porch. A horribly unlucky, tragic accident.

They had been an odd couple. Both outsiders. He was a book editor with a deformed leg who’d had to struggle to break free of a very protective family. And she was a surgeon, whose life centred on her work. Not an obvious couple, but their relationship so clearly worked for both of them.

Aaron tried to come to terms with what had happen, to mend his home and his life, and diplomatically fending off friends, colleagues and neighbours, who offered more support than he really wanted.

Anne Tyler draws Aaron’s past and present, his relationship with Dorothy, quite beautifully. And she handles difficult subject matter with grace and sensitivity.

Aaron’s work – developing beginners’ guides for dealing with every life event that could possibly merit one – balances his story beautifully and provides a lovely touch of gentle humour. And his inexplicable sightings of his late wife made me catch my breath.

This is a very quiet little book. Not too much happens, but lives are illuminated and lives change.

It wasn’t quite perfect – just a little slight in a few places, just a little forced in others – but it came pretty close.