The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

I don’t often use this word, but Anne Tyler is one of my favourite novelists. And one of the things I admire about her novels is that her characters are engaged in managing ordinary lives, and she continually challenge stereotypes, especially of the adult, male, American protagonist.

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.

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 with their early return from a holiday at the beach to Baltimore. Anne Tyler describes how they are sit and what they wear. ‘They might have been returning from two entirely different trips,’ she says. Such observations are one of the delights of reading Anne Tyler.

Macon is the author of 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 and his inability to deal with his losses.

After breaking his leg in a self-induced accident, he returns to his childhood home, where his sister and brothers also live. As a family they 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. In a kitchen scene Anne Tyler describes a particular kind of order that Rose observes:

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.”

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

In 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 19 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 book word post on arranging books here, for example). Macon’s strategies for coping with the exigencies of travel are only a little more idiosyncratic than yours or mine. We can’t help sympathising with the hapless Macon as he is assailed by grief, the departure of his wife, breaking his leg, a badly behaved dog and a dog trainer.

Families are another constant theme in her 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.

Is she a women’s writer? She has been accused of being sentimental, homely, homespun, even anti-men, but she has many male admirers, including John Updike. It is true that her male characters, including Macon, are quirky,  ‘rather a forlorn bunch’. 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.’

6 Comments

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6 Responses to The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

  1. Anna

    Loved this book. Must read it again. and thanks for the radio 4 interview – will listen to that later.

  2. Eileen

    The Accidental Tourist is my favourite Anne Tyler book and I have read them all, some several times. I love the film too and have watched it many times. I love the role of the dog in the story. I love his family and his sister’s need to get the exact size of envelope to post his manuscripts. Her romance is an interesting one, with his publisher, and then her role in taking over his office and making everything work. I see a lot of real human connection in the book, of love, friendship, sadness and courage.

    • Caroline

      Hi Eileen, I agree that the roles of the dog and Macon’s sister Rose are both central to the plot and Rose’s ability to support people, despite her quirks, is beautifully painted in the background. The publisher marries Rose, and then when Rose goes back to the family home to sort something out, he has to go to live with her there. Rose brings people together, as do both Muriel and the Dog, and they are a great counterpoise to Macon’s barriers against the impact of the world and life (and travel).
      I think Anne Tyler’s ability to pick on details, like getting the right size of envelopes, is great: we probably all have these sort of habits – ok – well I do.
      Which other novels of hers would you particularly recommend?

  3. Marianne

    Anne Tyler is one of my favourite writers too and I relish each of her new books coming out. I also think that the film of the Accidental Tourist complements the book beautifully – the casting of the main characters was so good. Although I enjoy all her books, I have enjoyed some more than others. After the Accidental Tourist my favourite is Ladder of Years which is about a middle aged woman just taking off and starting a new life of her own. Of her more recent books I have enjoyed Digging to America where she does a wonderful job of exploring other cultures although of course always within the geographical confines of Baltimore.

    • Caroline

      Oh yes, the image of the woman just walking away at the start of Ladder of Years has stayed with me. Amazing how many people say she is a favourite author.

  4. Great review, Caroline, of a wonderful book by a great novel. You’ve selected some superb quotes here; I’d forgotten all about the elbow pasta, which had me laughing again. Another thing TAT achieves is to open successfully with the weather – at least in my memory it’s pouring down with rain went they’re in the car. Such a lovely balance of poignancy and humour. You’ve made me want to go back and read it again.

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