In the last couple of months of my Mum’s life I bought her a few novels that I thought would give her pleasure. Although we didn’t know, then, how dire her health was, I did know that she was tired and needed good but not overly demanding or depressing reads. So, for Easter, I gave her Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words; for Mothers Day, I gave her Sulari Gentill’s A few right thinking men and Anna Goldsworthy’s Melting moments; and, then, when she went into hospital, I bought her Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the side of the road. Being the lexicographer she was, she loved The dictionary of lost words. She took A few right thinking men into hospital and read two-thirds of it before tiredness defeated her. She was finding the historical background really interesting, but she was keen to get onto Tyler whose books she’d read before. Unfortunately, she never did, but I picked it up as I sat by her bed on the last day of her life. It’s a long time since I’ve read Tyler, but it turned out to be the perfect book for my current state of mind. Even so, it took me two weeks to read it …
Anne Tyler has created some memorable characters and/or situations. I loved The accidental tourist with its travel writer aiming to show American businessmen how to travel without feeing they’d left home – the antithesis of how Mr Gums and I like to travel. I remember the opening of Breathing lessons with the couple squabbling about navigating as they drive to a funeral under pressure. And, her empty-nest-fearing character in The ladder of years who just ups and leaves in the middle of a family holiday is such a wonderful conceit. If she were Australian, we’d probably describe her work as quirky.
What makes Tyler’s novels so enjoyable, then, are her characters and her writing. Her characters are believable but just a little off-centre, and her writing is accessible, but tight and evocative. Her novels are character rather than plot-driven, but they don’t wallow in her characters’ lives. She keeps the story moving.
So, in Redhead by the side of the road, we have 41-year-old Micah Mortimer, “such a narrow and limited man; so closed off.” Routine is his mantra, and you could pretty much set your clock by it. He’s not particularly socially astute, and doesn’t understand the jokes his four older sisters make about him, particularly when he tells them that it looks like his latest girlfriend, Cass, has broken off their relationship. He doesn’t explain that the cause was his inept response to her announcement that she feared she was about to lose her flat – because he hasn’t realised it himself. This is one of the catalysts that forces him to reconsider his life. The other is the sudden appearance on his doorstep of college freshman, Brink, who thinks Micah might be his father.
Now, Brink is the son of his first serious girlfriend Lorna. Micah knows for a fact that Brink is not his son but he accepts this young man into his home and tries, in his own way, to help. While all this is going on, he also keeps an eye out on his apartment building where he “moonlights as a super” and he attends calls for his sole-trader business, Tech Hermit. I must say that, living with my own tech expert, I loved Micah’s interactions with his clients, so many of which I’ve heard Mr Gums have with various friends and family members. “Have you turned it off and then on again?”, for example. The password-finding escapade for a young girl who had inherited her gran’s home and computer is particularly entertaining.
However, that’s not the subject of the novel. What is, is Micah’s slowly growing awareness of life not being as he has seen it, of realising that striving for predicable order does not necessarily make you happy. When Lorna explains why their relationship had ended, our routine-focused Micah, who has never been good at seeing things from other perspectives, has “to adjust to this altered view of the past”. The novel’s title provides a little insight into this:
He slowed to a walk on the last stretch approaching York Road. He momentarily mistook the hydrant for a redhead and gave his usual shake of the shoulders at how repetitious this thought was, how repetitious all his thoughts were, how they ran in a deep rut and now his life ran in a rut, really.
Micah, though, is not the only character muddling along. The thing I like about Tyler is that all her characters muddle along. She forces us to see below the surface, to see that while some may appear more successful than others, may have the trappings of success – like Lorna – all have their insecurities or uncertainties. The novel is full of gentle but no less pointed insights into relationships – Micah’s with his messy, chaotic family, for example, or, Lorna’s with her husband. And it has some sensible down-home philosophies, such as “what’s the point of living if you don’t try to do things better” and “try again, try again, and try again after that … because what else can a person do”.
All this might sound a bit cutesy, but the thing is that beneath Tyler’s apparent cutesiness, is a warm but clear-eyed view of human nature. She sees our foibles, our mis-steps, our little self-delusions, but she wants us to make our lives work. Redhead by the side of the road is no exception, and was just the right read for me for now. I must get back to reading Tyler.
Redhead by the side of the road
London: Chatto and Windus, 2020
33 thoughts on “Anne Tyler, Redhead by the side of the road (#BookReview)”
Thank you, Sue. This is a most beautiful response to Redhead, and also to the work of Anne Tyler generally. There is such a deep seriousness thrumming away throughout her novels, and you have enacted that.
Thanks Carmel. I think there is too. I’m glad that came across.
I really loved this one too Sue. My thoughts have been with you often these past weeks. Take care.
Thanks Theresa. I really appreciate that.
I have thought of you so much these past few weeks but did not want to intrude. My mother liked Anne Tyler and I can remember her telling me I needed to read her. I have a couple on my shelf I have been meaning to pull of and read. So many books on my shelf I want to read and yet I still pick up the travel and photography writing. I need to get outside the square I am in.
Oh thanks Pam. It means a lot to know people are sending good thoughts my way.
You know that you should always listen to your Mum! If you haven’t read Tyler do – and if find yourself gravitating to travel books, start with The accidental tourist (which was made into a film with William Hurt and Geena Davis). Not only is it about travel, but there’s a dog too!
My favorite by Anne Tyler is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. But I guess Redhead by the Side of the Road came along at the wrong time for me (I reviewed it on April 9).
I liked that one too Jeanne… It was the mother and son or sons? But my favourites are those three I named. Will check your review.
Not an author I’ve ever read, but now maybe I’ll look out for her.
Your post has made me wonder… it was my father who influenced my reading… as a teenager I read and talked about the books he read, and we traded titles and book talk all his life.
My mother was a reader (and it’s her Jane Austens I have as a set) but she let it lapse. And now I wonder, would I have read different books, and have had my reading tastes shaped differently if she had continued to influence me?
I have one of her books which really puzzles me. Published in 1970, it’s NF, called Between the Rock and the Hard Place and it’s by Paul Jacobs, and is an account of failed Israeli-Palestinian detente efforts in the 1960s. Nobody has ever reviewed it at Goodreads, I had to enter it in the db myself.
I’ve never wanted to read it (too depressing!) but I do wonder about why she had it and I keep it on my shelves as a reminder that we don’t know everything about our parents…
Interesting Lisa. For me it was more my mother who influenced my reading, but I always talked to Dad about books too. He was (I say was because he can’t read now) more traditionally “male” in his reading ie history and biography were his main loves. (He did surprise me by reading David Marr’s Patrick White – that wasn’t the sort of biography you would expect him to read. It was more political, Australian pioneering families, business stories and biographies.)
I like that you keep that book as a reminder of that. As you say, we really don’t, as much as we think by the end of their lives we do.
PS I don’t know whether you’d like Anne Tyler, but I think you would. I like her a lot because she’s one of those writers who just “gets” ordinary human beings and our funny little ways, out relationship tensions, our worries and fears, our private thoughts and wishes, and she does in an accessible but definitely not cliched way.
Oh Sue, sending love to you.
I do love Anne Tyler but it wasn’t always so. We read The Accidental Tourist at school and all thought it terrible. Being teenagers who knew everything, we found her characters pitiable and boring and (worse) middle-aged. Then many years later (now middle-aged) I picked up my old copy and started reading, and fell in love with that book. I have since read everything else that she has written, but not this one, which I was unaware of. So I have just ordered it.
Take care of yourself. I hope you find more of the right books to get you through.
Thanks Irma … it’s been an awful few months, I must say.
Your The accidental tourist story reminds me of my Great expectations story which I was given to read in school in 2nd form. I could not read that thing, and resisted it until my forties when I devoured it. In between I’d read quite a lot of Dickens, but every time I turned to Great expectations I recoiled. Finally, I did read it right through and loved it.
Good for you for reading all of Anne Tyler. I would too if I could find the time. I’ve only read about 5 or 6. (But I think I have one of Mum’s here, because I did give them to her every now and then.)
Glad to hear you’ve enjoyed this book during a difficult time Sue. There’s only one book by Tyler that I have truly enjoyed and I can’t give it a strong enough recommendation, and that’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – so good I purchased my own copy. Tyler does family sagas well and this one is superb. A recommendation from someone who doesn’t usually read Anne Tyler!
I’ve read that one too and enjoyed it. I think it was the second one I read. Somehow, though, it’s the three I named above that have most stuck in my mind.
Why do you think you haven’t enjoyed others so much?
Sue, can you or anyone recommend the best Amy Witting books – I’ve checked and our library has nothing by her. I’d love some recommendations as I’ll have to get anything from Fishpond or Ebay!
Not the Book Depository https://www.bookdepository.com/ ?
I think I’d start with her Isobel books, Sue, I for Isobel and Isobel on her way to the corner shop. She’s a treasure and, as you probably know, taught with Thea Astley at a Sydney High School.
Apparently they both taught English at Cheltenham Sue – I was just too late and missed them – that must have been wonderful!
I think I found the other Anne Tyler novels too American for me, and I didn’t find The Accidental Tourist at all – it must be just something about her style perhaps that doesn’t appeal to me except for Homesick Restaurant. Sometimes there’s no real explaining to these things, for some reason a writer just doesn’t appeal – I can’t put my finger on the exact problem! Glad you enjoy her though!
That’s right, it was Cheltenham. How lucky those students were eh?
Fair enough re being “too American” Sue. I don’t think you are the only one to feel that. I’ve lived in the USA twice and love reading about its culture, plus I just love her style and tone.
Hello, dear ST: I hope you’re doing OK (I think ‘OK’ is about as well as one can hope to be under your circ.s; but of course it won’t be forever).
You make this book sound appealing, although the descriptive quote of Micah was an initial put-off. I shall read the review again, and t-h-i-n-k. 😀
Thanks M-R. I’m heartsore, but doing OK. As I’ve said to some people, I’m a grown up. I knew this day had to come. I just wasn’t expecting it now, and had hoped for something different for her last years. As long as I don’t dwell on that I’m OK!
I think you’d like Tyler’s tone, M-R, if you haven’t read her before.
I absolutely love Anne Tyler. I think I’ve read just about everything she’s ever written and I have this most recent book waiting to be started. She understands the smallness and largeness of the human heart and her characters are so beautifully drawn. The Ladder of Years was life changing for me. I also love that her worlds are so small but like Austen she shines a light on every part of those lives and spaces. Thanks so much for this review.
Thanks Anita, I wish I’d read more of her because every one I’ve read I’ve loved. In recent years I’ve seen new ones come out and have itched to read them but just haven’t managed to find the time. I LOVED The ladder of years too. And, as I was reading her, and writing my review, I was thinking Austen too.
I read and enjoyed The Ladder of Years quite recently, so I was quite receptive to the idea of reading Redhead, then one of your commenters mentioned Homesick Restaurant and now I’m not so sure. I get through so much US general and genre fiction on audiobooks that I struggle to remember even which authors I have read and I think I had Anne Tyler pegged as a bit soppy. I should pay more attention.
Oh no, she’s not soppy, Bill, not to my mind. She’s sort of gentle and warm, but she’s also clear-sighted and funny. A good combination I think. Homesick is good, but The accidental tourist really tickled me because of his job!
Definitely not soppy! Her writing is so spare and luminous.
Thanks Anita… Glad you agree.
Hi Sue, My library is in lock down but posting out books to their members. I received the Redhead by the side of the Road, on Friday and finished it yesterday. Your review is spot on, especially the characters being memorable and mumbling along. I don’t think Anne Tyler has written a bad book.
Oh thanks Meg for getting back to me. I have liked every book of hers that I’ve read. Would love to find time to read more. (I’m glad the library is posting books to members.)
Been on my TBR list since this review, but your 6 Degrees post spurred me to action. A delightful tale, so nicely balanced, and with such an optimistic ending. I shall have to chase up some of her other yarns.
Oh, if you haven’t read her before Neil do read more. I’ve only five or six but there’s not one I haven’t enjoyed.
What a beautiful review, with such a poignant beginning. I love Ladder of Years myself, I think that might be my favourite, something I’m mulling over at the moment as I need to do my round-up post about my Anne Tyler project in three days’ time. I found this one interesting for the way she zooms outside Micah’s head and observes his narrow life then zooms back in, not something she’s really done before.
I hadn’t really noticed that as something different Liz, but I wasn’t my most astute self when reading it. it was a very sad time for me. I just like how she evoked his kind but clueless behaviour! Ladder of year’s is one of my most memorable though I haven’t read the few before Rehead. Accidental tourist remains a favourite… Partly because of the travel guide writer writing advice so Americans could travel without feeling they’d left home.