The desire to speak with the dead is the striking theme of The Beginner’s Goodbye, Anne Tyler’s nineteenth novel. It is set, like many of its predecessors, in an unpretentious neighbourhood in Baltimore. The story is narrated by Aaron Woolcott, a man whose life has been more than commonly subject to misfortune. As an infant he suffered a flu attack that left him with a crippled arm and leg and a speech impediment. ‘Really I’m not handicapped in the least,’ he claims defensively, but he needs a leg brace and a cane. Then, in his mid-thirties, his wife is killed in a freak accident. As Aaron struggles with shock and grief, he reviews his marriage to Dorothy and realises that, despite their love, they were unhappy together. ‘Out of sync. Uncoordinated. It seemed we just never quite got the hang of being a couple the way other people did.’ In trying to understand what went wrong, he is unexpectedly aided by Dorothy herself. ‘Solid and sturdy’ as in life, she appears beside him as he goes about his daily routines, posing painful questions before vanishing as rapidly.
Less helpfully, Aaron is also accompanied on his journey to enlightenment by well-meaning neighbours and friends, who ply him with casseroles and cautious enquiries, invite him to dine with the newly widowed and, in their strategies to deal with the