Who is an American? What does it mean to be an American in cultural terms? What is an American family? Those are just three of the many interesting questions that Anne Tyler cleverly raises in her unexpected story of two families connected initially by having received their adopted Korean babies from couriers on the same flight landing in Baltimore. In the plot, perspective shifts among three generations and the cultural heritages of three nations. From these points of view, you can see that the answer to the three primary questions is quite different for each person in the story. You are left the space to draw your own conclusions about the ultimate answers, a courtesy indeed.
The book is primarily Maryam Yazdan's story. You'll learn how she came to America from Iran through an arranged marriage, eventually lost a husband, raised her son, developed an increasingly uneasy relationship with her daughter-in-law and her other relatives, saw her life revitalized by the arrival of a granddaughter, and opened herself up emotionally to an American man.
Two infertile couples decide to adopt from Korea, not an easy decision to make. Neither knows anyone else who has gone this route. It's not surprising that they would want to keep in touch after meeting by chance at the airport. Bitsy is the wild card in the group: American-born, she seems to lust after genuineness in other cultures. Bitsy also has her own strange ideas about parenting (the binky party is the best part of the book) and friendship (she makes a bigger fuss about the anniversary of the girls' arrivals than for her older daughter's birthday). Without Bitsy's quirky personality, this would be an average book.Read more ›
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Digging to America is a very thoughtful story of 2 families, the Donaldson's, a typical American family and the Yazdans, Iranian immigrants. The book opens with both families, not knowing each other at the time, waiting at the airport for the arrival of their two baby daughter’s that each family has adopted from Korea. When the families realize they were both adopting babies from Korea, they thought it would be nice to stay in touch so that the girls could see each other. This was the beginning of the stories of 2 quite different families and their blossoming friendship. It was a very thoughtful story that had me laughing and even teary eyed at times. It was a nice story, worth the time, just not great.
I listened to the Audio CD version, which is not listed here on Amazon. It’s too bad, because the narrator, Blair Brown was excellent! She really brought the story to life!
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This is a charming book in its own placid way (had there been the possibilty, I would have rated it with 3 1/2 stars).
Initially, I thought that the main subject was adoption, in reality this book explores more than that. In fact, I believe that its core revolves around the issues of family dynamics and integration in every sense of the word, starting from adopting babies from a far away country/culture and the subsequent adjusting to a new life, all the way through the struggles (for the older members of the family) to become well-integrated in a foreign country.
This is true especially for Maryam, one of the Grannies, who moved to the USA as a young bride from Iran. Although the narrative gently shifts from character to character (the two adoptive families, the new babies, all the relatives on both sides etc.) -and each and every one has a fair share of space in the book- I perceived that the main character is Maryam herself. Sha has been a widow for years and it seems that, to this day, she has a sort of polite resilience to adjust to the American way of life (although she doesn't seem to miss her native country too much). Even so, she has found her niche and is content with the daily regularity of her life, until someone belonging to the other adoptive family -and to her, the stereotype of everything American- starts to show affection for her. Her sense of belonging, emotional and geographical, starts to oscillate causing a lingering and subtle vulnerability. I see the rest of the story (the adoptions, the descriptions of both families and most of the ensuing situations), almost as a contour line surrounding Maryam's tale.
On the whole, I'd say that the characterizations in this book are good and very real-life, but the story line is a bit weak. Not too memorable but certainly a pleasant read, even comical at times (the give-up-binky party was very hilarious). I think that this book is suitable for young readers too (14+).
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Anne Tyler has written some of the most popular and psychologically astute and knowing novels ever: "Accidental Tourist," "Breathing Lessons," "Amateur Marriage" are just a few of her best. In "Digging to America" (a play on what your mother used to tell you about digging holes: be careful you're going to land in China!), Tyler tells a simple story of two families: the Donaldson's and the Yazdan's who meet at an airport both awaiting a baby both families have adopted from Korea.
Though the prose is often precise and thoughtful: "Then as soon as he saw Susan's fragile hair and pinched anxious face, not beautiful at all despite what Ziba believed, he had felt a kind of sinking sensation and a wave of fierce protectiveness, and if that wasn't love it soon became love" much of it is, if not pedestrian, then straightforward to a fault. The plot and sub-plots are out of the ordinary and interesting but the follow through is not. Tyler abandons the adoption plots (the Yazdans and the Donaldson's) and concentrates, in the second half of the novel on Maryam and Dave: the grandparents of the adoptees but short shifts both because she seemingly loses interest in her characters and rushes to finish, tying up some but not all of the plot lines.
An average Anne Tyler novel is still better than most of what is foisted upon us each year and as such "Digging to America," though only mildly interesting, is worth at least a look to anyone interested in contemporary fiction.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
99 of 103 people found the following review helpful
Familiar and Yet New!May 9 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
There is much of the familiar in Anne Tyler's latest novel, "Digging to America"; endearing characters, the bustle and flow of family life, and the small wonders of the quotidian world, but much is new here as well. For one thing, the protagonist Maryam is a most unusual "Tyler woman". She is small, compact and spare, elegant and soft spoken. She holds herself in and thinks before she speaks. She doesn't trail scarves, tissues and hairpins the way many of Tyler's women do. She's not prescient Justine from "Searching for Caleb", nor scatter-brained Maggie from "Breathing Lessons", nor a caretaker like Rebecca from "Back When We Were Grownups". And Maryam's "difference" is purposefully apt, for she is a foreigner. This novel, about two families who become intertwined when they both adopt Korean girls, explores the notions of fitting in, what it means to be "different", of what it is to be an "American", of what must be lost of the self to join a community. (This last point is amusingly illustrated in an attempt to coerce a tiny Chinese girl into giving up her pacifier.)
Readers familiar with Tyler's work will not be surprised to find that September 11th is given but a glancing swipe. After all, Tyler skimmed past WWII and the Vietnam war in her last novel "The Amateur Marriage"! The outside world does not affect Tyler's landscape the way family does. Ever.
This insightful tale of culture clash and will delight all Tyler fans. One can't help but assume that much of this story is autobiographical given that Tyler's late husband was from Iran. That certainly adds credibility to the characters. Also, the candid conversation two characters have about losing a spouse rings very true. I'm a huge Tyler fan, so she could publish her collected grocery lists and I would love it, but I can honestly offer my opinion that this novel will satisfy any reader interested in what it means to be a part of a whole; country, community or family.
144 of 155 people found the following review helpful
A Kinder, Gentler Jane AustinMay 4 2006
H. F. Corbin
- Published on Amazon.com
I always marvel at what a quick and easy read Anne Tyler is without being glib and facile. Her latest novel DIGGING TO AMERICA is no exception. It's as if Jane Austin came to live in present day Baltimore and was kinder and gentler. There is not a single villain amongst Tyler's latest group of just off-center characters-- and there are enough folks here to fill up a Eudora Welty Sunday dinner-- I'm almost positive Ms. Welty would like this novel if she were alive.
Two couples, previously unknown to each other, arrive at the Baltimore airport on Friday, August 15, 1997 to meet their newly adopted baby daughters from Korea. Because of that meeting, they become friends, particularly the two mothers. The Donaldsons-- Bitsy and Brad-- are as American as key lime pie, and their new friends, Sami and Ziba Yazdan, are Iranian American. Much of the plot has to do with Sami's mother Maryam who came to the United States as a young bride and her difficulties with being between two worlds and not feeling at home in either.
The characters sometimes act silly, occasionally badly; but to a person they mean well. Ms. Tyler writes beautifully about finding love again in old age, a topic few writers do well or even attempt for that matter. Of course Gabriel Garcia Marquez covers that topic in the incomparable LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA; but then he writes well about everything. The author also tackles the tricky task of getting into the head of an Iranian character and apparently pulls it off. There are many instances of gentle humor here. Ms. Tyler pokes fun at Americans and all our foibles. Maryam has so much difficulty understanding Bitsy's father Dave: "He is so American. . . He takes up so much space. He seems to be unable to let a room stay as it is. . . He has cluttered my life with cell phones and answering machines and a fancy-shmancy teapot that makes my tea taste like metal. . . You think that if you keep company with them [Americans] you will be larger too, but then you see that they're making you shrink; they're expanding and edging you out."
Ms. Tyler writes eloquently about the solitude of old age. Her description of a day in the life of Maryam (p. 255) approaches poetry: "What a small, small life she lived! She had one grown son, one daughter-in-law, one grandchild and three close friends. Her work was pleasantly predictable. Her house hadn't change in decades. Next January she would be sixty-five years old-- not ancient, but even so, she couldn't hope for her world to grow anything but narrower from now on. She found this thought comforting rather than distressing."
Finally only a writer of Ms. Tyler's ability could make-- for me at least-- a party to wean a baby from pacifiers interesting. The guests at the event tie the pacifiers ("binkies") to helium-filled balloons and release them into the sky.
Another winner for Ms. Tyler.
52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
The Amalgamation of Two Uniquely American FamiliesOct. 26 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
I've always loved Anne Tyler's novels. Frankly, I consider her to be a modern American literary treasure. I love the predictability of Tyler's novels--there is usually a Baltimore setting, a focus on small family drama, a woman who suddenly find herself a stranger in her own life, and a host of unforgettable spot-on-perfect characters that jump to life off the page and live alongside us while we observe them interacting with one another. Tyler's latest novel, "Digging to America," is no exception; however, with this new work, Tyler adds a number of wonderful new ingredients.
The new ingredients are cultural differences, cultural assimilation, and an endearing Iranian-American character who finds herself a stranger, not only in her own life, but in her adopted country as well. There is an intriguing additional ingredient for those readers who love to get inside the minds and lives of authors: this book has strong autobiographical overtones, and this is a real bonus for an author as reclusive as Tyler! More about that later.
"Digging to America" is a novel about the slow amalgamation of two very different American families: the Donaldsons, a bright, cheery, everything-out-in-the-open, mildly quirky, but nonetheless typical, middle-class American family; and the Yazdans, an Iranian-American family who exhibit most of the archetypal cultural hang-ups of that particular ethnic subculture. On first appearance, these families seem to be polar opposites.
They are drawn together by chance at the Baltimore airport, where each family comes to collect its newly adopted baby daughter from Korea. From the very first, all the differences between these two families appear in strong, stark, loving, humorous, and typically Tyleresque contrast.
After this first meeting, it would have been natural in "real life" for both of these families to disappear from each other's lives. But, this is an Anne Tyler novel, and you can count on Bitsy Donaldson's quirky, meddlesome, everything-is-possible nature to get these two families together again and again, year after year at annual family rituals. There are the "Arrival Parties," where the families celebrate their daughter's first entrance into America. These parties are an all-American patchwork of 4th-of-July celebration and family hoedown. The centerpiece is a manic family sing-a-long of "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain." Then there are the autumn "Raking Parties," both girls' birthday parties, Thanksgiving celebrations, Christmas parties, and most original of all, the "Binky Farewell Party." This last affair was specially designed to help the Donaldson's second adopted daughter--this time from China--give up her embarrassingly long-lived reliance on binkies.
These parties provide the novel with its structure. Each event works like a short story, and as such they are complete and enjoyable in their own right. But Tyler chooses to weave these events into a novel. She uses these parties as perfect observation points for readers to watch these two families interact, grow, and change over time. We watch them for a decade. Between the parties, there are major life-altering events that occur in the lives of individual Donaldson and Yazdan family members. But these big life events are not the focus--the focus always remains on the small everyday dramas and the slow changes that move these families--little by little--together, until they are seamlessly one.
If there is a main character in this novel, it is Maryam Yazdan. It is her life that Tyler focuses on with great love, insight, humor, and understanding. Maryam first comes to America four decades before the opening of this story. She comes as a teenage bride willingly accepting a quasi-arranged marriage with a slightly older man who has already made America his home. For 40 years, Maryam has been a woman caught between two cultures--never feeling at home in either. She feels perpetually "the outsider," with no concept about how to live as one who belongs.
Anne Tyler married an Iranian-American psychiatrist at the age of 22 and this marriage lasted for 34 years until her husband's untimely death from cancer in 1997. She has two children from this marriage and has not remarried. Obviously, she knows a great deal about the intermingling of Iranian and American families. Undoubtedly, there are strong autobiographical threads hidden within the fabric of these characters' fictional lives.
It is Maryam that we readers end up rooting for at the end of this novel. It is her life that we want so much to see changed for the better. Perhaps this is Anne Tyler unconsciously trying to write herself into a less solitary future. Regardless, Maryam is pure magic--a character long to be remembered, a character long to be loved.
Eventually, the families amalgamate into one big happy multiethnic Donaldson-Yazdan Tribe--part Korean, part Chinese, part Iranian...but finally, for all of them, one-hundred percent American.
This is a book about families It is about what is means to be a family. It is also about Americans and what is means to be an American. It is not one of Tyler's masterpieces, but it is delightful and enjoyable on many levels, and I recommend it highly.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Sweet, Charming, and MeaningfulAug. 8 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
Anne Tyler has such a wonderful way of spinning a web around her readers...you are drawn in and trapped within her world of lush characters, all of them so unique, and yet so familiar. Such is the way with "Digging to America," one of her best in years.
The book begins with two families at the Baltimore Airport, each picking up an adoptive daughter from Korea. The first family, the Donaldsons (Brad and Bitsy, can we get more American? hahahha), are in-your-face, especially Bitsy. She is a "type"--she wears her own hand-woven clothing, she fiercely keeps her child's Korean name (Jin-ho), she is into health food and "cultural identity."
The other couple, Iranian Americans Sami and Ziba Yasdan, are a sometimes uncomfortable mix of their very strong ethnic roots and the need to be uber American. Their daughter, whose Korean name they change to Susan, is not as huge and healthy as Jin-Ho, and altogether different in every way.
Nevertheless, these two unlikely couples meld in friendship, largely through the overbearing efforts of Bitsy, who insists on having a yearly "Arrival Party," with both extended families on each side, to celebrate the girls' arrival. Sami's mother Maryam, a widow who emigrated 40 years ago but who still keeps herself aloof, comes along every time, although she very busily keeps herself separate. She adores her granddaughter Susan, but cannot fathom the ways of the Donaldsons, who are wont to do things like giving annual autumn "leaf parties," where everybody rakes.
The entire theme of this book, woven so effortlessly throughout the pages, is identity. Who are we? Are we each separate entities floating through life? Are we a "cultural" identity, such as "American" or "Iranian"? Are we all just humans in one big soup pot? Do we NEED these labels? It's a fascinating story, with a truly moving ending. I loved it and recommend it very highly.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Richly textured and rewardingDec 14 2007
J. A Bowen
- Published on Amazon.com
As a big Anne Tyler fan, I had long been looking forward to reading her latest book, not just because I am a fan, but because of the subject matter. My maternal relatives are Armenian/Assyrian immigrants from Iran, and although Maryam and Ziba are Iranians and (I assume -- religion is touched upon very lightly in the book, if at all) Moslem, I knew there would be lots of cultural things in the book that I could identify with. I was not disappointed in this -- Tyler blends her wonderful characterizations deftly with descriptions of the food and customs of the country, along with some very insightful writing regarding the feelings of the immigrant in the U.S. I know firsthand (from my mother and her relatives) the longing for assimilation, and the feeling of hopelessness that you will ever be looked at as anything other than an object of curiosity.
Maryam was, to me, by far the most interesting character and the one Anne Tyler herself grew to be the most interested in. She is very different than my own mother, who is an extrovert and LOVES talking about her cultural differences and her past life. Maryam's reserve and dignity are more reflective of the Iranians I have met. I would have liked to have seen Ziba's character developed more. She was young when she emigrated to the U.S. and definitely embraced American life and customs to the nines, but I felt there were some ambivalences there that were touched upon that could have been better developed.
There really isn't much of a plot, and Anne Tyler herself says that plot is the last thing she thinks about when writing her wonderful novels. She is all about character development, and that suits me just fine. The constant shifting of viewpoints got on my nerves a little bit. That is a very popular technique these days, and I can follow it just fine, but after awhile I usually find myself wishing the author had stuck to just two viewpoints. Even as skilled a writer as Anne Tyler can leave the reader feeling that the book was just a little shallow as a result of this. Kind of like having too many people at a party, or more acquaintances than real friends. Luckily, Maryam is such a fascinating character, the book works well.