The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (again)

Anne Tyler’s novel A Spool of Blue Thread was hotly tipped to win the Man Booker Prize 2015. In the event the panel chose A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. He is young and relatively unknown while Anne Tyler’s book is her 20th and (she says) her last. It would have been fitting to see her win the prestigious prize, especially as it’s always good to see women winning. But it is also good to see a newcomer’s talents being recognized and to enjoy the fuss over novels that the award generates.

And I would also say that A Spool of Blue Thread is not Anne Tyler’s very best novel. While I have gained huge pleasure from all her books for me it is The Accidental Tourist. Last month I reread it for one of my reading groups and remembered all over again its many delights.

208 Acc T cover

Here is my revised review, originally posted in April 2013.

The Story of The Accidental Tourist

Macon Leary and his wife Sarah are trying to come to terms with the random murder of their teenage son. The novel starts as they return early from a holiday at the beach to their home in Baltimore. Anne Tyler describes how each sits and what each wears. ‘They might have been returning from two entirely different trips,’ she says. Such observations are one of the delights of reading Anne Tyler.

Sarah leaves Macon who does not manage without her, despite devising all kinds of contraptions – like doing the washing in the shower – to make his life easier. After breaking his leg in a self-induced accident, he returns to his childhood home, where his sister and brothers also live.

Macon is rescued by Muriel, a dog trainer. Her life is chaotic, but she is open, generous, logical in her own way, and, as several people observe to Macon, unlikely. People will wonder about such an ill-matched couple, his ex-wife tells him.

He felt a mild stirring of interest; he saw now how such couples evolved. They were not, as he’d always supposed, the result of some ludicrous lack of perception, but had come together for reasons that the rest of the world would never guess.

As readers, we know that Muriel’s efforts, her persistence, her kindness are just what he needs, and by the end of the book, so does he. And in turn he will ground her.


Macon (pronounced May-con) is one of Anne Tyler’s ‘forlorn bunch’ as she calls her male protagonists. He is an antidote to the usual heroes of Great American Novels. We can’t help sympathising with the hapless Macon as he is assailed by grief, the departure of his wife, a broken leg, a badly behaved dog and a dog trainer.

Macon’s employment is as unsuitable as the rest of his life. He writes a series of guides for people forced to travel on business called Accidental Tourist in London, Paris, …

Macon hated travel. He careened through foreign territories on a desperate kind of blitz – squinching his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life, he sometimes imagined – and then settled back home with a sigh of relief to produce his chunky, passport-sized paperbacks.

I love the word ‘squinching’. This is pretty much his way of careening through life, the separation from his wife, the increasingly difficult behaviour of his dog, his ridiculous name and his inability to deal with his losses.

The Leary Family

Families are a constant theme in Anne Tyler’s novels because, she says, people are forced together in them and she wants to know ‘how they grate along’. That theme can run and run. Your family probably has some rituals, sayings and episodes that you don’t boast about.

The Leary family have some interesting patterns of behaviour; they get lost whenever they venture into the streets of Baltimore, they never answer the phone and their favourite food is baked potatoes. One of the things that needs fixing in the novel is the Leary family’s dependence on each other and the bizarre rituals they have developed to cope with the external world. The three brothers, including Macon, and their sister Rose, all get lost whenever the venture out into Baltimore. They get lost in every respect until their lives are smoothed by opening to other people, especially Muriel.

Perhaps we all have rituals like the Leary family. Here is a delightful detail about order in Rose’s kitchen.

Rose stood on a stepstool in front of a towering glass-fronted cupboard, accepting groceries that Charles and Porter handed up to her. “Now I need the n’s, anything starting with n,” she was saying.

“How about these noodles?” Porter asked. “N for noodles? P for pasta?”

E for elbow macaroni. You might have passed those up earlier, Porter.”

Anne Tyler

208 A TylerIn the very few interviews that she has agreed to, Anne Tyler asserts that she writes, not what she knows, but to see what it’s like to be inside someone else’s life. She asks the question, ‘what does it feel like to be this kind of someone?’ (Read Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview and listen to Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 Front Row interview).

And she does it gently, wittily, wryly, in all her novels. She says that she has to like her characters, and even when they are behaving in absurd ways, the reader recognises something of themselves, their fears or foibles: perhaps you don’t alphabetise your kitchen stores, but people do organise stuff in their homes in very particular ways (see Bookword post on arranging books for example). Macon’s strategies for coping with the exigencies of travel are only a little more idiosyncratic than yours or mine.

Is she a women’s writer? The question seems to imply she’s a lightweight, and contains an accusation that she is sentimental, homely, homespun. It has been suggested that she is anti-men. Of course she has many male admirers, including John Updike. And it is true that her male characters, including Macon, are quirky. But they are not wimps, unpleasant, grasping or self-promoting. And Anne Tyler herself claims that growing up with a loving father and brothers and having had a good marriage, her experiences of men have been good. ‘Isn’t everybody quirky? If you look closely at anybody you’ll find impediments, women and men both.’

Another reason to reread The Accidental Tourist (1985) is that it seems to me to be an exception to the disappointment of film adaptations. Starring William Hurt and Geena Davis, this film captured Macon’s maladroitness as it is slowly smoothed out by Muriel’s openheartedness.

I will be sorry if she never writes another novel but happy to explore her oeuvre again. One of the things I enjoy about her novels is how her characters are engaged in managing the challenges of ordinary lives, and how she continually challenges stereotypes, especially of the adult American male.

Related posts

I reviewed A Spool of Blue Thread on Bookword in July 2015.

Natasha Hinde’s interview in July 2015 in the Huffington Post: ‘Completely Without Inspiration’


The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler published in 1985 by Penguin Random House 355pp

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

16 Responses to The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (again)

  1. I keep meaning to read The Accidental Tourist. Thank you very much for reminding me. Your review has encouraged me to move it higher up the leaning tower of books.
    I was ever so slightly underwhelmed by A Spool of Blue Thread, although it was still beautifully written and populated by memorable characters, as always. My favourite so far is The Tin Can Tree.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment Joanna. Come back again when you have reread The Accidental Tourist and let us know what you think.
      I can’t bring The Tin Can Tree to mind, so I’ll have to revisit that!


  2. Totally agree with you, Caroline, The Accidental Tourist is by far the best of her books that I’ve read. Maybe I should suggest it for my book group!
    And well done you getting those share buttons sorted!

  3. Thoroughly agree, and much enjoyed this post. Yes, I loved both the film of the Accidental Tourist and the book. I found A Spool of Blue Thread dragged rather, though, to be fair, I am rarely enthusiastc about family sagas.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this Barbara. I think many of her other novels are a little less like sagas – certainly The Accidental Tourist takes place over about 12 months, and I think saga implies a generation or two??
      But families is certainly what Anne Tyler is good at unpicking.
      Thanks for dropping by. Please visit again.

  4. Eileen

    Yes, my favourite too and I loved the film. I have read and watched Accidental Tourist many times. One of the best film adaptations, great casting.

  5. I recently read A Spool of Blue Thread because I always had a sneaking suspicion that I’d like Anne Tyler’s writing and I was right, I did. I loved how clever her character creations were and how well she observed the nuances within family relationships – and that’s the sort of writing I never tire of enjoying. However, the book itself was a bit weak and not, in my opinion, entirely worthy of Man Booker recognition. It was missing a point, a purpose, something meaty to drive it forward so I think The Accidental Tourist sounds like the one to turn to. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Caroline

      Hi Claire,
      thanks for this comment. You have a world of pleasure ahead of you with another 19 novels by Anne Tyler to dip into. I agree with your view that A Spool of Blue Thread lacked something, but I was pleased to see the author recognised at last.
      And I agree that families are her territory. Comment again when you have read another one of hers.

  6. Anne

    Digging to America is my favourite Anne Tyler. I enjoyed Spool but agree that I didn’t think it was her greatest novel. That saying your blog has prompted me to reread some AT as I started reading her novels years ago and they would certainly justify rereading.
    Digging to America is fantastic – I loved the main character and her struggle to fit in. Have you read it?

    • Caroline

      Hi Anne, there seems to be a concensus that A Spool of Blue Thread is not Anne Tyler’s best novel, but everyone has different favourites. Do re-read more of hers and come back and tell us what you think.
      Caro xx

  7. anneontheshelf

    Thanks for this. I’ve just got it down from my tbr shelf. After finishing the wonderful but savage The Fishermen yesterday I feel this will be an ideal next read.

    • Caroline

      You have a treat to come if you have not yet read this book. Some of it is hilarious and some so poignant. I have read it more than once, and I;m getting tempted to read it again!
      Thanks for your coments. Always appreciated.

      • Anneontheshelf

        I’ve finished it and I loved it. Yes sometimes laugh out loud but showing so much understanding of humanity and relationships. I loved the way Macon was finally taking control . I really had no idea how it was going to end. It was very neat involving everyone living and dead, I think. I won’t say more as I don’t want to create a spoiler! Thanks for recommending it.

        • Caroline

          So pleased you enjoyed The Accidental Tourist. And thanks for letting us know. I love it when my blog leads people to a book they really enjoy.
          Have you read other books by Anne Tyler? She has written a great number in the past, but has slowed down now. They all have great charm and considerable insight.

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