Saturday, August 9, 2008

Feeling At Home

Reading an Anne Tyler novel is like visiting an old friend. I've read so many of her books that at this point her characters seem like people I know. They're are not larger than life; they're not heroic or passionate or despicable. They live ordinary lives in Baltimore and mostly try to do the best they can. They sometimes attempt to squirm out from under a smothering family or disappointing spouse, but they never stray too far. Not exactly Anna Karenina.

In Digging to America Tyler focuses on two families who are adopting baby girls from Korea. Their paths cross at the Baltimore airport as their babies arrive. The Donaldson parents, Bitsy and Brad, are accompanied by a noisy entourage of friends and family as they greet their new arrival. In contrast Sami and Ziba Yazdan hover in the background, joined only by Sami's imperious Iranian mother Maryam. As the story moves on the contrasts continue. The Donaldsons retain their baby's birth name of Jin-Ho and celebrate her Korean heritage every chance they get. The Yasdan's change their daughter's name from Sooki to Susan. They are themselves the children of Iranian immigrants and, having learned to assimilate into the American culture, they want the same for their child. For special occasions Jin-Ho is dressed in a kimono while Susan is dressed in a party dress and Mary Janes.

The Donaldsons include the Yasdans in their lives, inviting them to an annual “Arrival Party” for the two girls and an autumn leaf-raking party (an event which mystifies the Yasdans). The Yasdans reciprocate with an Iranian celebration where Maryam and Ziba organize an astounding array of Persian dishes, although Maryam is less than enthusiastic ("Why should they have to put on these ethnic demonstrations? Let the Donaldsons go to the Smithsonian for that!"). Initially the purpose of these events is to ensure that the little girls become best friends. As the years go by it is clear that the two have little in common other than their place of birth. But the gatherings allow Tyler to subtly explore what it means to be American (typified by the pushy but good-hearted Bitsy), and how it feels to be an outsider. Maryam typifies this conflict; she takes pride in her otherness and her self sufficiency and is often appalled by the 'too much information' tendencies of the Donaldsons. But she slowly comes to realize that her stubborn insistence on remaining an outsider may be costing her too much.

Ann Tyler was married to the Iranian-born psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi (he died nearly 10 years ago), and this no doubt explains why her Iranian characters seem as real and complex as those from her native Baltimore. Although I wouldn't pick this as my favorite Tyler novel, I once again enjoyed getting to know her characters.

1 comment:

  1. charlotte

    This is one of the few books, outside of our monthly selection, that I have read this year. Enjoyed every page. I was surprised to learn that Tyler was married to an Iranian.