The timing of that rare appearance is odd. Fans who remember the author’s wonderful “Saint Maybe”; “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and “Breathing Lessons,” which won a Pulitzer in 1989, will have to concede that “The Beginner’s Goodbye” is one of Tyler’s minor novels, along the lines of “Noah’s Compass” from 2010.
The narrator, Aaron Woolcott, works as an editor at his family’s vanity press, which publishes the “Beginner’s” series, “something on the order of the ‘Dummies’ books,” he tells us, “but without the cheerleader tone of voice — more dignified”: e.g., “The Beginner’s Colicky Baby,” “The Beginner’s Monthly Budget,” “The Beginner’s Spice Cabinet.” It’s 2007, but the Internet has passed over Woolcott Publishing, which glides along in this model-train version of an American city that looks closer to Mayberry R.F.D. than to the largest city in Maryland.
If the economic and cultural details seem quaint and artificial, Tyler’s ability to survey the emotional terrain of grief remains sharp. This is, of course, a subject she’s explored before, most famously in “The Accidental Tourist,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the basis for the movie starring William Hurt, but here the approach is more gentle, even wistful. Aaron’s marriage to Dorothy, a doctor eight years his senior, came to an abrupt end a few months earlier when a tree fell on their sun porch and killed her. They had just finished bickering about Triscuits.
In the slim story that follows, well-meaning relatives and colleagues tiptoe around Aaron or irritate him with platitudes — the sort of awkwardness that anyone who’s suffered a loss will recognize. Indeed, Tyler’s husband of more than 30 years, Iranian-born psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi, died in 1997, and one senses in the sad comedy of Aaron’s bereaved social life a certain amount of the author’s personal experience. The neighbors bring food he doesn’t want to eat — “some kind of curry” — and he catches himself resenting the way everybody looks “so robust, so indestructible.” He flops around as we all do, horrified at both the persistence of ordinary routines and the tenacity of sorrow: “I felt as if I’d been erased.”
What’s most interesting about “The Beginner’s Goodbye,” though, is the way Aaron’s grief becomes complicated by a franker understanding of his own marriage. Memories of just how prickly they were together punctuate his aching affection; defensiveness creeps into his voice. “My eyes worked so hard to summon her up that they were practically knitting her,” he says, but we also hear of “little glitches,” tiresome disagreements that used to send them into separate silent corners of the house.