4 – Plot/Story is interesting, believable, and impactful.
Anne Tyler’s 1982 novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award (1983), and it is not difficult to understand why. The story revolves around the Tull family, which consists of Pearl, an overbearing, somewhat (okay, very) imbalanced mother, and her three children: Cody, Ezra, and Jenny. The father-figure, Beck, abandons the family when the children are still quite young and Pearl spends her life trying to protect her family’s image. She is not in denial about Beck’s abandonment, but she refuses to admit it to her children, to her friend (yes, just one friend) and to her extended family, because that would upset the image that she has cultivated, one of a perfectly ideal family and one which her own family never expected her to achieve. The narrative is told in alternating viewpoints, with a third-person narrator who is, chapter-by-chapter, closely engaged with either Pearl, Cody, Ezra, or Jenny. The narrator remains relatively unbiased, but each chapter does reveal certain of the family members’ own biases, particularly through memory. Cody, for instance, looks back on his childhood as largely traumatic – he felt slighted by his mother, who clearly favored his younger brother, Ezra. Meanwhile, Ezra looks back on his childhood fondly and can’t seem to understand why his family was never able to function well together. Jenny hovers somewhere in-between, clearly troubled and damaged, yet still able to recover – after time – to achieve a somewhat normal life, with a decent family (eventually) and a great career. Ultimately, the story is about the “new normal” of American culture, where women go to work, children begin to fend for themselves, and everyone is dysfunctional in some way or another.
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.
The characters in this book are drawn so well that, even in their horribleness, they are still believable and oddly loveable. At times, their selfishness, lunacy, and anger felt so real as to be laugh-out-loud funny (haven’t we all been so mad, or so sad, that all we could do was laugh about it?). Pearl is an American “Tiger Mom.” She demands perfection from her husband (which drives him away) and from her children (which creates other problems). She is clearly bipolar, at times claiming that her family is the most important thing in the world and then, minutes later, smashing bowls of peas over her daughter’s head. Cody is selfish but in a way that is clearly resulting from jealousy over his brother’s relationship with their mom. He is competitive in everything he does, so much so that he even plots to steal his brother’s wife. Jenny is self-loathing and self-conscious. She is clearly intelligent and capable, but always doubts herself. And Beck, the absent father, is juvenile and self-indulgent. He does send money home for his family on a regular basis, but he leaves them because he cannot bear the pressure of living with Pearl, he cannot live up to her expectations (nor suffer through her very troubling O.C.D.) and, really, just wants to be free to move around, and sleep around, as much as possible. It’s such a small cast of characters, but they are written so well that the story is enlivened and enriched beyond what one might come to expect from a story with such limited focus (one family).
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
This is the only Tyler novel I have read (and, in fact, this is the second time I’ve read it), and I’m having a hard time figuring out why that is. She’s such a good story-teller; she knows characters and can develop them incredibly well; she has a masterful sense of tone, mood, and pace. On top of all this, her language, prose, and style are almost refreshing in their ease of movement. Although this story is intense at times, the prose moves it along, matching the mood of each scene, adjusting as needed to fit the scenes of suspense, humor, etc. The structure (and the already-mentioned narration) of the novel, alternating viewpoints in every chapter, can sometimes come across (in other works) as pretentious, simplistic, or lazy, but here it is clearly necessary toward achieving Tyler’s end, which is honestly and accurately relaying the “truth” of each character’s reality and memory. Set up in this way, the reader understands the family as a whole, but also how each character fits into it – how they see themselves and how others see them.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.
The primary themes in the novel are this idea of the “burden of a person’s past,” and also the “family meal.” To this first point, we see that there are multiple histories being examined, one for each of the characters, one for the family, and then the history of each of the family members as seen through the eyes of the others. Needless to say, this book is about personal and familial histories, there’s a lot of it, but it is explored creatively, intricately, and with a remarkable reality. To the second point, the family meal, we see this as a recurring scene throughout. Some of the most touchingly warm and heartbreakingly sad moments in the book occur when the children are eating meals at others’ homes. They see, when having dinner at a friend’s house, for example, how “normal” families function – how “normal” families show love and tenderness toward one another. These scenes are contrasted with ones at the Tull house (I use the word “house” instead of “home” on purpose), where the family meals always seem to start out with the best intentions, but soon go sour. Violent fights, shouting matches, angry insinuations – these are the characteristics of the Tull family meals. From childhood and well into adulthood, Ezra Tull, the family’s most sensitive member and general caretaker, tries his best to get the family to have “one good family meal” – but he never succeeds. In addition to these two main themes are those of alienation and loneliness. Pearl spends her life insulating herself, and her family, from the rest of the world. On the surface, this book seems like just another book about family life, but it’s so much more than that. This is a book every serious reader should experience.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Family Dynamics, Sibling Relationships, Single-Mothers, Dysfunctional Families, Comfort Food, Multiple POVs
“When you have children, you’re obliged to live.”
“You think we’re some jolly, situation-comedy family when we’re in particles, torn apart, torn all over the place, and our mother was a witch.”