Back When We Were Grownups

A 2001 novel from Anne Tyler

This book was full of surprises! As a step-daughter in a big family of all girls, I really connected with this story. In her fifties and widowed with four daughters and a bevy of other relatives reliant on her, Rebecca works up the courage to test out the path she rejected in her early life, hoping perhaps she can become again that thoughtful, introspective person she was in college. Like all Tyler novels, this one is more about the characters and human nature than it is about any particular plot. I loved Rebecca’s reflection on her past and how honest she was with herself through her exciting midlife crisis.

I’m the oldest of six girls, and one of my recurring pieces of advice to my younger sisters is to remember that you can always start over, with the underlying message being that it’s OK (and likely!) that you will get a major life decision wrong at some point(s). It seems to me this is what Rebecca is learning in her middle age — that not everything in her life went to plan, but that doesn’t mean the result is a mistake. That maybe she didn’t become who she thought she’d be at 21, but that’s OK. Most interestingly, that becoming someone who is entirely a surprise does not need to be a disappointment.

Another recurring theme in Tyler novels is motherhood, particularly the idleness some women feel when children are grown (this comes up in Clock Dance, Ladder of Years, The Clock Winder, and Breathing Lessons to name a few). Tyler has been writing for a long time, and while this issue is less prevalent now that more women are working or pursuing other interests in addition to parenting, it is by no means outdated. Rebecca seems to experience the opposite effect of having grown children; they are constantly at her door or on the phone. She is needed to the point of exasperation, but like other women in her position her own needs are entirely neglected. Three stars.

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