"Back When We Were Grownups," by Anne Tyler. Alfred A. Knopf. 274 pages. $25.
"People have always seemed funny and strange to me, and touching in unexpected ways," Anne Tyler wrote in the marvelous essay "Still Just Writing," some 20 years ago. "I can't shake off a sort of mist of irony that hangs over whatever I see. And I'm always hurt when a reader says that I choose only bizarre or eccentric people to write about. It's not a matter of choice; it just seems to me that even the most ordinary person, in real life, will turn out to have something unusual at his center."
Funny and strange, touching, unusual: Over the course of 14 huge-hearted books, Anne Tyler has defined those words for her prodigious readership - given them names, given them dreams, given them (most often) grace. In "A Patchwork Planet" she introduced the already-divorced-but-not-yet-college-gra duated Barnaby Gaitlin, who gets paid by the hour to help the eccentric elderly. In "The Accidental Tourist" her hero was Macon Leary, the travel writer who, perversely, didn't care all that much for travel.
In her 15th book, "Back When We Were Grownups," Tyler, who makes her home in Baltimore and assiduously avoids the media glare, throws back the curtain on yet another peculiar and poignant world. This time, it's the whirligig life of one 53-year-old Rebecca Davitch that has Tyler's fastidious attention.
Davitch is a widow and a mother, a stepmother and a grandmother; she's the outwardly jovial, self-consciously sparkly mistress of the Open Arms, a ramshackle party-throwing enterprise. She's all these things, and yet she's wondering who she is, who she might have been had she not impulsively left behind her college studies and another man to marry a divorcee named Joe, who up and died on her a mere six years later.
"Once upon a time," the story begins, "there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. Give her credit: most people her age would say it was too late to make any changes. What's done is done, they would say. No use trying to alter things at this late date. It did occur to Rebecca to say that. But she didn't."
What do you do when you're under suspicion for being the wrong kind of person? Is it too late now for Davitch to pull the plug on everyone who relies on her without realizing how much they do - on the clamorous and self-centered children, Patch, Biddy, NoNo and Min Foo; on the ancient widower Poppy, who shares her living quarters; on those lovable but needy grandchildren? Davitch isn't selfish; she's long since lost the art. But she is adrift in her own ample soul, and she's thoughtful and searching beneath all her outward bustle.
With Davitch, Tyler has created a character who is brave enough to look back on her life and to imagine herself making different kinds of choices. Brave enough to wonder what honesty looks like, whether there is ever really a single distillation of self that is unshakable and true. Brave enough to be afraid: "It occurred to her that she led an absolutely motionless existence. There was nothing to look forward to in it. Nothing whatsoever."
"Grownups," then, tells the story of what happens to Tyler's heroine as she attempts to locate herself in the curious circus theater of her life. Hubbub abounds in these pages - calamitous parties and family feuds, the constant need to find the clothes that match a hoped-for moment or mood from a wardrobe described as "dangerously close to Bag Lady" - and yet heartache abounds as well, and it is Tyler's special way of bridging peculiarity with poignancy that makes this novel such a stunning continuation of the work she began so many years ago.
Anne Tyler has heart, and she's not afraid to show it. Anne Tyler has a talent for spinning out characters we care about, characters who go on living long after their stories end.
Beth Kephart's first book, "A Slant of Sun," was a National Book Award finalist; her second, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," was released last year. She won a 2000 NEA grant.