Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of those books that has been on one of those self-created "I should read" list since it was first published in 1982. I'm not sure why it took over 2 decades to finally make it's way into my hands, but once I opened the book last week, I couldn't put it down. It even provided a brief respite during the middle of a busy day, where I closed my office door and read for 15 minutes -- something that I never do.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was a choice for my book group this month, selected from a list of book options in the local library's "book group in a bag" program. This is a program of a nearby town's library system that allows one person to select a title and checkout 8 copies and a reader's guide for 6 weeks -- a great program for book groups. They even can provide copies in large print, which two of the people in my group need. This is the kind of 'your tax dollars at work' thing that just makes me smile.
One person in my group had read the novel previously and spoke highly of it. She told me the other day that she could not wait to discuss it because she had an entirely different perspective reading it 20 years later. Two other members of my discussion group have commented that they didn't care for the book. I look forward to a lively discussion this evening, although I suspect that I might have to refrain from shouting: How could you NOT like this book?
Dinner is the story of Pearl Tull, a hard-working, determined, emotionally distant and bitter woman left to raise three children on her own. The book covers four decades in the lives of Pearl and her three children, Cody, Ezra, and Jenny. Cody is smart and handsome, but spiteful and plotting, and so envious of his brother Ezra that it consumes him. Ezra, soft, doughy, and somewhat clumsy as a boy, is a peace-maker, the kind of person who wants to make everybody happy, even at the risk of his own happiness. He offers care for others in their woundedness and is loved for it, except by his siblings, who scoff at his efforts. Jenny, though determined like her mother, struggles to not be a stiff-lipped control-freak like Pearl, and she finally settles into a chaotic family life that seems to bring her some sort of purpose and acceptance of life, if not peace, in its total disorganization.
Each chapter of the book focuses on a different character, sometimes presenting the events totally from the perspective of that character. One chapter, in the middle of the book and in the middle of the chronology of the plot, is even written in the present tense, which I found a little disconcerting. When I read a book where the narrative perspective changes, I find myself wondering who the book is really about. The first several chapters of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant appear to be about Pearl. But, then the book changes, and seems to be about Ezra and Cody, stuck in a life-long struggle, like Esau and Jacob. Sometimes the book feels like it is about Ezra, but then the reader's perspective is swayed, and you feel like it is really about Cody who can never quite leave his family behind, no matter how desperately he tries to distance himself. In the end, the book isn't about any one of them, but about a family; a dysfunctional one for sure, but a family nonetheless. Reflecting the name of Ezra's restaurant, The Homesick, an underlying theme in the book is that although one may hate one's family, one is often wistful that we can gather into families where all are happy and without regret, homesick for the family we want, not the one we may have. Like Tolstoy's famous opening line of Anna Karenina, we are reminded that such idealized notions don't exist. 'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is not a happy book. It's characters all have flaws -- like any human being. This unhappiness is why I suspect that people in my book group may not like it. But, I think it is what makes the book so good. Tyler's novel is beautifully crafted, and, despite the sadness and gloom of the lives of the Tull's, is a great book to read.