Anne Tyler Books in Order: 20 Character-Driven Novels
Literary Fiction At Its Best
When I first picked up an Anne Tyler novel, I had no idea who she was or what I was getting into. I just grabbed a book off the store shelf -- I guess the cover art caught my eye -- then paid my twelve dollars and was on my way. I didn't start reading page one for weeks.
But when I did, I didn't put the book down until I'd turned the final page. I was enthralled. The characters were so real, so wonderfully flawed. And the plot ... um, what plot?
Okay, yes,Tyler's books do have plot. But it's what I call "small" plot. Things often move slowly, sometimes seeming to flow more like the tempo of my own life rather than the faster-paced action you might expect from a novel. When it comes to Anne Tyler's writing, though, I like the unhurried nature of the stories, so I can take in every minute detail. She must be quite the people-watcher.
That first book of hers I bought on a whim happened to be her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, . From there, I went on to read nearly every book Tyler had written. Some I liked -- even loved -- more than others, but all left me feeling like my time as a reader, as well as a self-taught student of creative writing, had been very well spent. Breathing Lessons
Here, I'd like to share with you a little about the author and a lot of her work. If you've never read an Anne Tyler novel but enjoy sometimes quirky, often troubled, always far from perfect but beautifully sculpted characters, I encourage you to give one of her books a try.
Anne Tyler once said, "I'm scared of the very idea of a 'message' in a novel. All I ever want to do is to tell a story." And does she ever do it well.
A Little About the Author
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1941, Anne Tyler spent most of her childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University at the age of nineteen and then earned a graduate degree in Russian studies at New York City's Columbia University.
Before relocating to Maryland, Anne worked as a librarian and bibliographer. In 1963, she married Iranian novelist and psychiatrist, Taghi Mohammad Modarressi, and had two daughters. Her husband passed away in 1997.
Anne Tyler has authored 18 novels, including her latest, The Beginner's Goodbye, released in 2012. Six of her books have been adapted to film--one, Accidental Tourist, on the big screen and five others as made-for-television movies. She's also written two children's books.
(Sources: Wikipedia and BookRags.com)
If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
This is Anne Tyler's very first but incredibly insightful novel, written when she was just twenty-two years old.
Ben Joe Hawkes is a worrier, who comes from a large, cheerful family of women. But when one of his sisters leaves her husband and takes her baby with her, everything in Ben's life changes, including his perceptions of the past.
The Tin Can Tree (1965)
This one, I haven't read. Yet.
From the book jacket: "In the small town of Larksville, the Pike family is hopelessly out of step with the daily rhythms of life after the tragic, accidental death of six-year-old Janie Rose. Mrs. Pike seldom speaks, blaming herself, while Mr. Pike is forced to come out of his long, comfortable silence. Then there is ten-year-old Simon, who is suddenly without a baby sister -- and without understanding why she's gone. Those closest to this shattered family must learn to comfort them -- and confront their own private shadows of hidden grief. If time cannot draw them out of the dark, then love may be their only hope...."
A Slipping Down Life (1969)
This book was made into a film, starring Lili Taylor and Guy Pearce. The movie was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1999 Sundance Festival and, in 2004, won the Special Jury Prize at the Indianapolis International Film Festival. This isn't a happy story, but sometimes that's how life goes.
Evie Decker is a shy, plump and lonely teenager. But her quiet life is completely undone when she hears local rocker, Drumstrings Casey, on the radio and is instantly drawn to him. She pursues him--even carves his name in her forehead with a pair of scissors!--and eventually they meet and marry. But challenges await the unlikely pair.
The Clock Winder (1972)
I have to admit, if I were pressed to choose my least favorite Anne Tyler book (of those I've read), well, I guess it would be this one. But that's not to say I didn't basically enjoy it anyway and read every word. I'm just, you know, being honest; this one just didn't stack up to some of her other greats, for me.
Newly-widowed Pamela Evans lives just outside of Baltimore, with only a house full of ticking clocks for company. Then she hires a new handyman--woman, that is--the eccentric Elizabeth Abbott, and both of them find that "parts don't have to be a perfect match to work."
Celestial Navigation (1974)
The style of this book taught me that it's actually okay to write a novel from different perspectives. Each chapter has the voice of a different character, and Anne Tyler gives each one a unique tone. I could only wish to handle shifting points-of-view so splendidly.
Thirty-eight-year-old Jeremy Pauling has never left home, where he spends most of his time on the top floor of the Baltimore row house, creating collages of little people cut from wrapping paper. After his mother's death, Jeremy is forced to take in Mary Tell and her child as boarders, and Mary has no idea how much courage it takes for Jeremy to even look her in the eye. Like one of his paper collages, life is "fragile and easily torn, especially when he's falling in love."
Searching For Caleb (1975)
I've been told by a number of Anne Tyler fans that this is their favorite of her books. It's definitely near the top of my list, too. As usual, the characters are so real, so flawed and so easy to relate to.
Daniel Peck is searching for his half-brother, Caleb, who's been missing since 1912. And then there's Justine Peck, Daniel's granddaughter, who makes her living as a fortuneteller but can't remember the past. Justine accompanies her proud, crotchety and hard-of-hearing grandfather on his quest to find Caleb. Married to her first cousin, Duncan Peck, who restlessly moves the family from town to town, Justine discovers that foretelling the future and knowing how to live in it are two different things.
Earthly Possessions (1977)
Transformed into an HBO movie starring Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorff, this story has more in the way of plot, I'd say, than many of Tyler's other novels.
Charlotte Emory has always lived a rather uneventful, conventional and simple life. And, one day, she decides to simplify even more--in her mind, anyway--and leave her husband. But her last trip to the bank before making her move throws Charlotte's life in an entirely different direction, when a young man takes her hostage during a robbery. Soon, the two are southbound, heading into the unknown and a most unexpected fate.
Morgan's Passing (1980)
I was intrigued by the main character in this book, always pretending to be someone he isn't.
With seven daughters and a kind wife, middle-aged Morgan Gower finds his household and his job at the hardware store becoming tiresome and boring. Then Morgan meets two young newlyweds under rather intense circumstances, and their lives are never quite the same.
Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler considers this novel her best work. Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1983. The story follows three siblings, exploring how they lived through the same events during childhood but experienced them very differently. The novel is told from these different points of view, so readers witness the same event several times but with different emphases.
Pearl Tull is nearing the end of life, but she still has her memories. It was a Sunday night in 1944 when her husband left their row house on Calvert Street, abandoning Pearl to raise their three young children alone. Now she and her grown kids have come together again to tell their stories.
The Accidental Tourist (1985)
I actually saw the movie before reading the book, and I must say I preferred the latter. I liked the movie well enough, being the William Hurt fan that I am, but the characters on the screen just couldn't live up to those on the pages. The Accidental Tourist was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985 and was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize.
Abandoned by his wife following their son's shooting death, middle-aged travel writer Macon Leary finds himself "in danger of becoming a dried up kernel of a man that nothing real penetrates." And then Muriel Pritchett enters his life. With the help of this quirky and energetic dog trainer, who Macon hires to train his unruly canine, he's finally able to confront his anguish and begin to make a new life for himself.
Breathing Lessons (1988)
This is the book that got me hooked. It's also Anne Tyler's 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winner.
To the dismay of her melancholy husband, Ira, meddling Maggie Moran is on a mission; she's determined to reunite her son with his long-estranged wife and child. Meanwhile, this one-day story reveals how incompatibile Maggie and Ira truly are despite their 28-year marriage, as well as the love that binds them regardless.
Saint Maybe (1991)
The characters in the book are more ordinary, you might say, and less eccentric than those in other Anne Tyler books. But though the characters may be ordinary, the events that befall them are anything but, and their heroic behavior in the face of disaster is beautifully portrayed.
The cheerful Bedloe family counts their blessings, though they're not even close to wealthy and certainly don't live on the best street in Baltimore. But when 17-year-old Ian tells his older brother, Dan, that Dan's wife was pregnant before they married, Dan commits suicide, and Ian is left with profound guilt. Matters only get worse when Dan's wife dies soon after.
Ladder Of Years (1995)
I have to say, this was my favorite Anne Tyler book, I guess mostly because this main character was my favorite. There was a time (not recently, though) when just up and walking away from it all was something I almost envied but never would have had the guts to do. But Delia Grinstead did.
At the age of 40, with a very critical husband and three ill-tempered, nearly-grown children, Delia Grinstead just ... leaves, walking away from her family and her life as she knows it during a vacation at the beach.
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
"I am a man you can trust." Another first sentence that drew me in right away. And I really liked the rest that followed. This one is in a tie for my second favorite Anne Tyler book, along with Breathing Lessons.
Barnaby Gaitlin's life has gone just about nowhere since he was caught breaking into neighborhood homes as a boy. To the disappointment of his parents and brother and his cold ex-wife, 29 year-old Barnaby now works for a company called Rent-a-Back, doing odd jobs for elderly clients. Then, on his way by train to visit his 9 year-old daughter, he meets calm, competent Sophia, with whom Barnaby finds love and a chance at happiness. But life is never as simple as it seems.
Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler had me at the first sentence: "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person."
At the age of 54, Rebecca Davitch wonders what life would have been like if, all those years ago, she'd chosen Will instead of Joe, who died after just six years of marriage. She loves her family, her business, her home and town, but after more than three decades of being the dependable and entertaining matriarch, Rebecca begins to question who she really is.
The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Spanning sixty years in the lives of a mismatched couple, this is one of those novels of quiet desperation but without the Hollywood ending.
Michael and Pauline Anton met in 1941, just before he went off to war. Michael was drawn to her beauty, and Pauline wanted a brave soldier by her side. And when he returned, they married. All is hardly bliss, however, with constant, foolish arguments year after year. Even when they suddenly become parents to their young grandson, they're still unable to bridge their differences.
Digging To America (2006)
This is a story about what it is to be an American, and about an Iranian-born woman, who, after 35 years in this country, must finally come to terms with her "outsiderness." This novel received critical acclaim, but, to be honest, as favorites go, it's second from the bottom on my Anne Tyler list. Unlike her previous novels, there are obviously autobiographical threads within the fabric of these fictional lives, as Anne was married to an Iranian man for 34 years.
Two families, who would otherwise never have met, come together by chance at the Baltimore airport while awaiting the arrival of adopted infant daughters from Korea--the Donaldsons, a very American couple, and the Iranian Yazdans. After the babies are delivered to their new sets of parents, Bitsy Donaldson impulsively invites the Yazdans to celebrate with an “arrival party” that, from then on, is repeated every year as the two families become more and more intertwined.
Noah's Compass (2009)
This is the story of schoolteacher, Liam Pennywell, who has been forced to retire at the age of sixty-one.
Liam set out to be a philosopher but ended up in front of a fifth grade class, never much caring for his job at a dilapidated private school. So early retirement doesn't really bother him. What does trouble him is his inability to remember anything about the night he moved into his new and efficient condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is bandaged and sore.
The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
In this newest Anne Tyler novel, she explores how a middle-aged man, torn apart by the accidental death of his wife, is gradually restored by her frequent appearances -- in their house, on the road, in the market.
Gradually Aaron discovers, as he works in the family's vanity publishing business, turning out titles that presume to guide beginners through the trials of life, that maybe, for this beginner, there is a way of saying goodbye.
Anne Tyler Interviews - They don't happen often.
Anne is known for not granting face-to-face interviews, and she rarely does book tours or any other public appearances. She has, however, made herself available for e-mail interviews. Here are a few of them, along with a more recent NPR interview
- January, 2004
Anne Tyler explores the dramas of everyday family life.
- April 2006
An interview about her work, her approach to her craft, and, in particular, her latest novel, Digging to America
- May, 2006
In this USA Today e-mail interview, Anne explains why she hasn't given an in-person interview or gone on a book tour since 1977.
- Anne Tyler speaks - Blog Post | BookPage