Made in the USA
Anne Tyler's new tale -- about assimilation and identity -- is told through two intertwined families
Digging to America
By Anne Tyler
Knopf, 277 pp., $24.95
Anne Tyler's domestic calm -- her serene compositions, her Austenesque eye for detail -- has presided over 17 novels in the past few decades, all of them fashioned from a world where sadnesses collide, willy-nilly, with the gentler moments of life. Hers is a world defined by valiant efforts at connection; that more than a few of them fail is what keeps her out of the realm of sentimentality. Tyler assumes that bad things happen to good people, but what interests her is how the good endures -- how it manages to avoid being strong-armed into weary cynicism or snuffed out altogether. Her characters range from the lonely end of normal to slightly cockeyed; all of them are tinged by regret and compensatory neuroses, which often get acted out before a stove.
In ''Digging to America" the dining room tables are staggering under the competitive weight of their respective owners: Iranian feasts of eggplant and chicken, American counter-bids of heroic proportion. The cook-offs in question belong to two extended families who meet by chance at the Baltimore airport in 1997; they are each at the terminal to pick up Korean infant girls who are being adopted. Bitsy and Brad Donaldson come bearing videocams and baby equipment and ostentatious amounts of public love; Sami and Ziba Yazdan, accompanied by Sami's mother, Maryam, are the quiet Iranian group in the corner, waiting with a more dignified affection for the girl they will name Susan. From that happy day forward, the families will stay in occasional, then regular contact, their likes and differences and compromises forming the tension and ongoing momentum of the novel.
The scaffolding Tyler has chosen for the annual collision course between the Donaldsons and the Yazdans is an insufferable holiday that Bitsy invents called ''Arrival Day" -- they play and replay the airport video over the years, make the girls, Jin-Ho and Susan, enter the room in costume to the accompaniment of ''She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain," and cook frightening amounts of food. (Maryam cooks as a gesture of courtesy and obligation; Bitsy counter-cooks because she's insecure.) Ziba complains because her own mother lapses too often into Farsi; Sami, born in America soon after his mother emigrated, refuses to speak it but eavesdrops on the relatives who do. Brad's parents, good-natured Republicans, arrive with opinions and matching designer sports outfits; Bitsy's parents, Connie and Dave, are softer people, counterculture veterans, and Connie is dying of cancer. Maryam observes all the nuances of the Donaldsons' colorful narrative from a self-protective distance. She is long-widowed, self-sufficient, and moves through her relatively quiet life with wry reserve.
And because this is the world of Anne Tyler, it will be Maryam who catches our eye and then keeps it -- she with her sole carpetbag of possessions, arriving in America decades ago with so much hope and fear. ''Digging to America" takes its title from the childhood story about digging your way to the other side of the world, but it speaks to the heroic efforts of assimilation -- in Maryam's case, a tale of family and political history as well as ambivalence. She was a Westernized young university student in Tehran in the 1970s, afraid of the shah and his secret police but not enough to keep her from actively opposing him. When her family insisted on her meeting a young doctor on a visit from America, she rolled her eyes -- then found a man who laughed at her jokes and shared her sentiments, and an arranged marriage became one of love.
We learn these things about Maryam with the same discreet sense of timing she seems to have at the Donaldsons'; her portrait will emerge carefully through pages of Jin-Ho's and Susan's growth spurts, Bitsy's arguments about child-rearing, Connie's death and Dave's early grief. And somewhere in between the leaf-raking parties and artificially cheerful family gatherings, Dave stumbles out of a fog of bereavement and sees Maryam standing across the room. The most moving parts of this novel belong to the two of them: Maryam's gentle, circumspect days; Dave's brave efforts to come to terms with a widower's life where he still talks to Connie after she is gone. Facing an empty kitchen with the company of his memories, he thinks, ''Why, this is just unbearable." Heart-wrenching in its understatement, that ''why" is pure Tyler, whose novels are so easygoing that you don't glimpse the sorrows waiting in the wings.
But ''Digging to America" has a larger problem that its best moments can't override. Constructed around the onerous (even to Jin-Ho, it turns out) arrival holiday, the novel wants to be comic but too often seems attached to its own humdrum, slightly foolish events. Tyler can be a very funny writer, but here the jokes are weak and even saccharine -- for the reader, Bitsy's grating personality is just a bit too cute. This novel is at its best on serious subjects: Maryam's loneliness in a world of overbearing Americans, or the little wounds that every mother-daughter relationship holds. And the depiction of the extended Iranian family of the Yazdans is accomplished with haunting credibility. But the arc of the novel sometimes moves with lumbering predictability, caught up in details (an infant's pacifier withdrawal!) that hardly make for scintillating narrative. Watching one family event unfold, Dave considers that ''like most life-altering moments, it was disappointingly lacking in drama." True enough, but you don't want that tenet upheld within the formal demands of a novel -- where, unlike in real life, everything ought to happen for a reason.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com.