"And it seemed to him, as he sank back into his dreams, that she had as good as spoken aloud. About your son, she seemed to be saying: Just put your hand here [cesarean scar]. I'm scarred, too. We're all scarred. You are not the only one."
Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist is a character study on how different people sort through painful experiences in life. After having my eye on the book for years, I decided to delve into it at long last!
Macon Leary, the main character, suffered the loss of his 12-year-old son. He and his wife, Sarah, have discovered they have little in common and have pursued a legal separation. Sarah has moved out of the house.
Macon writes travel guidebooks for travelers who don't want to leave home, such as businessmen. In his guides, Macon helps such travelers make their ways through unfamiliar cities while experiencing as little of those cities' unfamiliarity as possible. In other words, he helps them maintain a cocoon-like existence.
Macon himself has managed to maintain a cocoon-based life. He thrives on the predictable and possesses an unbalanced suspicion of the unpredictable--which probably explains Tyler's choice of the character's last name, Leary (a form of "leery". After attempts to branch out in life, Macon's siblings have managed to return to a sheltered, communal existence within the family home. As the story unfolds, Tyler weaves in a fascinating look at the background of Macon and his family. In doing so, she digs into Macon's psyche to produce a believable character. As you read about Macon's psychological issues as a child caused by instability in his family, you develop and understanding of why Macon and his siblings are, to put it bluntly, screwed up as adults. They are adults who lacked a proper opportunity to experience a normal childhood.
Tyler provides a subplot surrounding Macon's dog, which has grown unruly and has developed a habit of biting people that enter its own cocoon. To help train the dog, enter Muriel, a divorced mother of a young child. Despite her eccentricities, Muriel bears scars of her own. The dog, like Macon, resists and fights change in its life. As Muriel trains the dog to accept change, she also teaches Macon how to step beyond his own limited existence and to embrace change. She helps Macon face the loss of his son and determine his next step in life. Macon has his systems to avoid change; Muriel has her technique to make change palatable and achievable, albeit for dogs.
One word of warning: The story is quite sad as it takes the reader into the characters' pain. This is not an "upper" of a story, and even the ending, although fitting for the characters, felt disturbing and sad. So before entering their world, be prepared for a heavy story with solid insight into the struggles of those who might live just next door.
The novel's strongest suit is its well-drawn characters. The story isn't as much about plot as it is about the internal growth of the characters as they sort through hurt and confusion. In this, Tyler has proven successful.