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Thursday Night Book Club -- November, 2018

The plan had been that the Thursday Night Book Club would gather one week before Thanksgiving to discuss Anne Tyler's 1985 novel The Accidental Tourist. But Winter Storm Avery had other plans for us last Thursday night. The snow and the wind from the storm made driving conditions hazardous, and the library closed at 7 pm. As a result, the Thursday Night Book Club missed the opportunity to gather together to talk about Anne Tyler's wonderful novel.

Winner of the 1985 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and made into a movie starring William Hurt, Gina Davis and Kathleen Turner, The Accidental Tourist is the story of Macon Leary, a travel writer who hates to travel and who writes guidebooks that make the traveler feel as if he had never left home. "Other travelers hoped to discover distinctive local wines; Macon's readers searched for pasteurized and homogenized milk." After an unsettled early childhood, Macon and his three siblings were raised by their grandparents in Baltimore. Macon's sister Rose still lives in the family house, and Macon's two brothers have, one by one, returned home after their marriages ended. When the novel opens, Macon and his wife Sarah are struggling after the death of their son Ethan a year earlier, and Sarah tells Macon that she wants a divorce. Sarah moves out, leaving Macon with Ethan's dog Edward, who has started snarling at and biting strangers to express his anger over Ethan's absence. Macon reluctantly hires a flighty dog trainer named Muriel to train Edward. Muriel, a devoted single mother to a shy and endearing seven-year-old son named Alexander, wears mismatched vintage clothing and spiky heels. She lives a life of randomness and community engagement that is wholly unfamiliar to Macon, but he finds himself increasingly drawn to her. "Although he did not love her he loved the surprise of her, and also the surprise of himself when he was with her. In the foreign country that was Singleton Street he was an entirely different person." When Sarah calls to tells him she wants him back, Macon is of two minds about what to do. The Accidental Tourist is a novel about how opposites attract and a warm and bittersweet depiction of the struggle to rebuild a life after terrible tragedy.

Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1941 and raised near and in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in Russian Literature in 1961. Her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, was published in 1964. Tyler is the author of 22 novels, including Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, Breathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was TIME Magazine's Book of the Year in 1989 and A Spool of Blue Thread, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Women's Prize for Fiction. Her most recent novel, Clock Dance, was published earlier this year. Tyler has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1983. She was married to psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Mohammed Modarressi from 1963 until Modarressi's death in 1997. Tyler has two daughters and lives in the Roland Park neighborhood of Baltimore, where many of her novels are set.

Because the group did not meet, I cannot summarize here what we discussed. But I did hear from several book club regulars who expressed their admiration for the novel and for Tyler's writing style. The Leary family, in all its very funny dysfunction, received many positive reviews, and in fact the Leary Thanksgiving dinner, to which Rose has invited her new boyfriend Julian, who just happens to be Macon's boss, was one of the reasons I chose the novel as the November book. Tyler demonstrates in just a few pages how quickly a family gathering can veer off course. Rose's outburst is a thing of beauty: "You three wasted your chances and now you want me to waste mine, but I won't do it. I can see what's what! Just listen to any song on the radio; look at any soap opera. Love is what it's all about. On soap operas everything revolves around love. A new person comes to town and right away the question is, who's he going to love? Who's going to love him back? Who'll lose her mind with jealousy? Who's going to ruin her life? And you want to make me miss it!"

It is also clear from the comments I received from Thursday Night Book Club regulars that, had we gotten together, we would have had a spirited debate about Macon's decision to choose Muriel instead of reconciling with Sarah. Tyler has admitted in interviews that she changed her mind about what Macon would do: "I actually began a chapter in which Macon stayed with Sarah. But it didn't work; something in the characters themselves persuaded me the ending would have to be different." I sensed skepticism from members of the book club about whether Macon and Muriel will be happy in the long term, given their different personalities and approaches to life. And several members wanted Macon and Sarah to stay together to see it through, having weathered so much in the past. But others noted that Muriel brought out the best in both Macon and in Edward. Neither Sarah nor Macon's family understand how Macon could be interested in Muriel, but Macon recognizes something in himself that comes to life when he is with her. She broadens him, just as he provides a grounding and foundation for her. "He began to believe that people could, in fact, be used up -- could use each other up, could be of no further help to each other and maybe even do harm to each other. He began to think that who you are when you're with somebody may matter more than whether you love her." The book ends on a note of happiness, something that has eluded Macon for quite some time.

Finally, I must share that The Accidental Tourist contains one of the loveliest and most evocative sentences I've come across: "There is no sound more peaceful than rain on the roof, if you're safe asleep in someone else's house."

Join us on Thursday, December 20th when we will be discussing the classic holiday novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Copies of the book are available at the Information Desk.


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