Book 7 of my #20booksofsummer
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was published in 1982, and I must have read it before, probably in my twenties when I lived in North London and didn’t have much money for books. I often made a hungover trip to Wood Green library to choose books on a Saturday afternoon, and remember the lurch of excitement on spotting an Anne Tyler novel that I hadn’t already read. By the end of the 1990s I had read pretty much everything Anne Tyler had written, and I’ve read most of her work since.
Assuming I have read the book before, I remembered nothing of it, although the character of Ezra, the novel’s middle child, seemed faintly familiar, and he’s someone who it is very easy to warm to (unlike his more handsome, charming but unfeeling older brother Cody). I found that the novel took a while to hook me in, but I finished it feeling genuinely awestruck at Anne Tyler’s ability to conjure up a whole cast of such nuanced, flawed but sympathetic characters.
The novel opens in the 1970s in Tyler’s eternal setting, the city of Baltimore, where Pearl, a sick old woman now, is reflecting upon the past. Married to spivvy salesman Beck, she was abandoned in 1944 and left to bring up their three children single-handedly. Self-reliant and proud – and exhausted and bitter – she manages as best she can with the juggle of working in a local grocery store and parenting, while trying to keep up appearances, and maintaining the fiction that her husband is simply working away and will one day return.
Having been initially introduced to children Jenny, Ezra and Cody from Pearl’s perspective, it is a shock to see events reinterpreted from the children’s own points of view, in turn, in later chapters. We understand that Pearl has often been an angry mother, inclined to lashing out both physically and verbally. What parent can’t relate to having responded unfairly to their children at one time or another, especially at a time of deep familial crisis, but Pearl’s words and actions can be desperately cruel, and her tongue particularly harsh.
Jenny, Ezra and Cody all fail in various ways to fulfil Pearl’s dreams for them, although professionally they flourish, really. This is not a perfect family by any measure, but its members are bound together somehow by invisible ties, even when individual members might be absent, disappointing or neglectful. Once grown up, dreamy restaurateur Ezra, itinerant efficiency expert Cody and overworked, domestically chaotic paediatrician Jenny all also make devastating, hurtful decisions at times and weather many storms. That is the book’s great strength really: that we see all its main characters at their worst, and yet retain sympathy for each of them.
Overall then I really enjoyed this very humane novel from a writer who is expert on the profundities of family life. It’s a warm-hearted testament to human resilience, and I think it might be my favourite Anne Tyler novel – though I’ll need to go back and re-read her whole back catalogue now (as Liz is doing) to know for sure. And, as a last-minute aside, I could really relate to Ezra’s desperate wish for a family dinner that doesn’t end in recriminations or arguments – how many times have I sat down with my three children and watched a lovely meal descend into a row!