Discussion questions for the beginner's goodbye
May 18, 2018
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The Beginner's Goodbye
Ann Tyler, 2012
Anne Tyler gives us a wise, haunting, and deeply moving new novel in which she explores how a middle-aged man, ripped apart by the death of his wife, is gradually restored by her frequent appearances—in their house, on the roadway, in the market.
Crippled in his right arm and leg, Aaron spent his childhood fending off a sister who wants to manage him. So when he meets Dorothy, a plain, outspoken, self-dependent young woman, she is like a breath of fresh air. Unhesitatingly he marries her, and they have a relatively happy, unremarkable marriage. But when a tree crashes into their house and Dorothy is killed, Aaron feels as though he has been erased forever. Only Dorothy’s unexpected appearances from the dead help him to live in the moment and to find some peace.
Gradually he discovers, as he works in the family’s vanity-publishing business, turning out titles that presume to guide beginners through the trials of life, that maybe for this beginner there is a way of saying goodbye.
A beautiful, subtle exploration of loss and recovery, pierced throughout with Anne Tyler’s humor, wisdom, and always penetrating look at human foibles. (From the publisher.)
Your self-esteem won't come from body parts. You need to step away from the mirror every once in a while, and look for another reflection, like the one in the eyes of the people who love you and admire you. Stacy London
Aaron is a tall, gawky and somewhat crippled man who works as an editor at his family's publishing firm. During a book consultation, Aaron meets Dorothy, a plain-looking, very short and rather blunt-speaking radiologist. In Dorothy, he finds a woman who is clearly not a nurturer, which appeals to him. His mother and sister Nandina had always coddled and overprotected him because of his crippled right leg and arm and slight speech impediment. Aaron has never thought of himself as handicapped and is a bit prickly that others do. He is always misplacing his cane, insisting that he doesn't really need it, and thinks the BMV is unreasonable in requiring him to have special adaptations on his car.
"Fans of Tyler’s work will find THE BEGINNER’S GOODBYE to be a slight departure from her previous offerings, but a pleasant addition to her long list of popular novels."
After a brief and unremarkable courtship, Aaron and Dorothy marry. Dorothy offhandedly announces that there would be no children, and Aaron agrees. The couple has no pets, and neither spouse seems to have any hobbies or interests. Dorothy is devoted to her job, and since she has absolutely no use for cooking, Aaron willingly and capably handles that task. They seem to be two people occupying the same house yet living in their own separate worlds. Their disagreements are not especially serious, but rarely do they see or understand the other’s point of view.
Their lives plod along rather quietly, though not particularly happily, until a freak accident occurs. A huge white oak falls onto their small bungalow, crushing part of the roof and flattening the sun porch where Dorothy is reading. A weighty old television set falls and lands on Dorothy's chest. She has surgery, but lives only a short time. Her death sends Aaron into a tailspin, and he seems to be jogging in quicksand emotionally. He accepts casseroles from the kind neighbors and sends them thank-you notes, but proceeds to scrape the food into the garbage, and then cleans and returns the dishes. How much food can one person eat?
Severe rain damages more of the house, and eventually Aaron flees to North Baltimore to the old family home that Nandina now occupies. He continues to lose himself in his work and rarely interacts with his co-workers. A contractor begins working on the damaged bungalow, and soon Nandina and the contractor, Gil, are discussing the renovations. For the longest time, Aaron refuses to return to check on the progress and even asks the contractor to bring him clothes from the house.
Nearly a year after her death, Dorothy appears, standing there looking at the house. Naturally, Aaron struggles with scattered thoughts. Am I imagining this? Who sent her back to me? And why? Although he can’t fathom what’s going on, he interprets Dorothy's sudden appearance as her desire to be with him because she misses him so much, which gives him comfort. But Dorothy disappears as quickly as she appears. He often tries to will her to return, but always fails. He feels a warmth when she’s nearby and a chill in the air when she abruptly and silently goes away.
Meanwhile, the house restoration is progressing nicely, and so is the unexpected romance between Gil and Nandina. Aaron moves back into his own house as he begins to see the world through Dorothy's perspective, possibly a rather strange phenomenon for a widow or widower. One day, Aaron and Peggy, the firm's devoted secretary and a childhood friend, have a perplexing conversation during which Peggy gives him a huge piece of her mind. Aaron thinks that maybe he needs to read THE BEGINNER'S DEMENTED SECRETARY. To understand the reason for Peggy's outburst, you need to remember that she is a natural nurturer.
Anne Tyler wraps up this unique story in a way that will please readers. Though the plot itself isn't believable (unless, of course, you believe in ghosts or apparitions, or the power of suggestion), the characters are very real. Fans of Tyler’s work will find THE BEGINNER’S GOODBYE to be a slight departure from her previous offerings, but a pleasant addition to her long list of popular novels.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on May 4, 2012
- What are Philip Marlowe’s reasons for rescuing the drunken Terry Lennox, calling him “My friend” (p. 10) after barely meeting him, and taking him home? Why does he tell the homicide detectives, “I’ve got a reasonable amount of sentiment invested in him”? (p. 42)
- After Marlowe gets beaten up and tortured in the police station, the lawyer Endicott accuses him of wanting “to play the big scene” (p. 56). Does Endicott accurately perceive Marlowe’s character?
- Why does Marlowe not feel the same kind of instinctive sympathy for writer Roger Wade that he feels for Terry Lennox, both of whom are down on their luck and troubled by alcohol?
- How are we to interpret the typed manuscript (p. 203-207) that Wade wrote while drunk, and which he instructs Marlowe to remove from the typewriter? Why does Marlowe save the scraps of this manuscript and then, later, put them down the kitchen garbage disposal at the Wades’ house?
- After Marlowe hears the wealthy mogul Harlan Potter denounce the media and American middle class consumerism (p. 233-235), he observes judgmentally of the old patriarch: “He hated everything.” (p. 235) Given Marlowe’s outlook on lawyers, cops, physicians and the upper class, does he show affinities with Potter’s view or is he someone very different from Potter?
- Is Marlowe serious when, later on, he describes himself as a “romantic”? (p. 280) Do you think he is? Describe from relevant passages in the text what Marlowe’s attitudes are toward individuals from different minority groups, including blacks, the Japanese and Mexicans. How does Marlowe view homosexuals? What attitudes does he have about women generally, and particularly blondes? Do these attitudes affect the way he conducts his investigation, and if so, how? Do these particular passages in the novel affect the work’s literary value?
- What does Marlowe mean by the phrase, “Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom”? (p. 352) Does his preceding monologue about how “cops are all the same” (p. 351) accurately sum up the attitudes of most law enforcement officers?
- Does Marlowe care about the rule of law, or does he act primarily to enforce his own personal sense of justice? Is there merit in policeman Ohls’ criticism that Marlowe has knowingly allowed deaths to occur that he could have prevented?
- Does Marlowe offer contemporary readers a code of conduct for living that we should admire and try to imitate?
- What does the conclusion of The Long Goodbye offer in the way of wisdom about marriage? About friendship?
The Chicago Public Library would like to thank the Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization based in Chicago, for contributing these questions. For more information about Great Books anthologies and Shared Inquiry™, a Socratic, text-based method of learning, visit the website at www.greatbooks.org.