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.