A photograph of Anne Tyler next to a collage of her book jackets

How many have you read? Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin

Over the course of 24 novels, produced during a fifty year period, Anne Tyler has established herself as one of America's greatest living novelists, compared to our very own Jane Austen for her handle on the richness of domestic life and admired by writers from John Updike to Nick Hornby, who once said he didn't know how to write until he picked up one of her books.

Such a reputation might feel daunting to anyone who has yet to discover her, yet there is nothing remotely daunting about a Tyler novel itself – to open one is akin to opening the front door to someone else's house in Baltimore, where nearly all her books are set, and settling down at the kitchen table. Her territory is small town American family life in all its complicated sadness, absurdity and resilience, and, like Updike, she “gives the mundane its beautiful due”, detailing the tensions, misunderstandings and secrets that can accumulate within a marriage in ways that allow the ordinary and extraordinary to coexist. What's more she does so using the most seemingly ordinary of tools – her prose is plain, her plots uncomplicated, her settings instantly familiar, her characters apparently unremarkable.

Nearly all her novels are worth spending time with but if you want to know where to start, here's a guide to some of her very best.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)

”Something was wrong with all of her children,” thinks Pearl in Tyler's ninth and first truly great novel, which heralded a golden age for Tyler that would last for nearly two decades. “They were so frustrating – attractive, likeable people, the three of them, but closed off from her in some perverse way that she couldn't quite put her finger on.” We're in vintage Tyler territory with this widescreen non linear story about a family orbiting for years the rupture at its centre: the father who walked out long ago and has never returned. As in her most recent novel French Braid, Tyler expertly plaits together the many contrasting versions of itself a single family can contain and refuses to stand in judgement of her characters, however badly they behave.

The Accidental Tourist (1985)

This Pulitzer Prize finalist – which was turned into a 1988 film starring William Hurt – displays Tyler's particular strength for writing about the sort of easily overlooked middle aged man who has somehow forgotten how to live, if indeed he ever knew at all. Macon Leary, a travel writer who hates travel, and his dog have been forced to move in with his three siblings after his wife leaves him a year after their son was killed. The dog has severe behavioural issues while Macon swings between feelings of numbed isolation and sticky panic at what his life has become, while doing his best to resit the advances of the idiosyncratic new dog trainer Muriel, a terrific comic creation. Like all Tyler books this lovely novel about a man learning to let go contains not an ounce of sentiment.

 

Breathing Lessons (1988)

Few Tyler novels display her seemingly artless grasp of craft better than her 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner, which is set over the course of a single day. Once again it's the story of a marriage, told first from the point of view of Maggie – who loves organising other peoples' lives – and then her husband Ira – who loves playing Solitaire – as they drive to the funeral of the husband of Maggie's best friend Serena. It flirts throughout with farce, most spectacularly at the reception where Maggie persuades Ira to make love to her in Serena's bedroom, but it's also a wise and tender novel about the multiple micro compromises a marriage depends upon to survive.

Saint Maybe (1991)

Saint Maybe captures Tyler's arguably singular ability for storylines that a showier writer would mine for melodrama yet which she treats as though they detailed the most normal thing in the world. Of course, normal is exactly what tragedy often is. Ian abandons a college degree to help his parents look after his brother Danny's three orphaned children after Danny dies in a car crash (for which Ian blames himself) and his widow dies by suicide. Although spanning many years in the life of Ian, this is one of Tyler's slighter novels, but its themes of faith, guilt and absolution are beautifully drawn.

Ladder of Years (1995)

Marital disillusionment is invariably a seam running through a Tyler novel; in her 13th Delia Grinstead ups and leaves hers (plus her nearly adult children) after a frisky encounter makes her view it afresh. She starts over in a new town where before long she becomes a surrogate mother of sorts to 12-year-old Noah, while at the same time embarking on a process of self discovery after years of never giving her life much thought. Tyler's narrative lens is so all encompassing it resists easy labels such as feminist, but in this gentle study of a wife and mother reaching towards for her true self, feminist is precisely what it is.

Redhead by the Side of The Road (2020)

Tyler had hinted she was about to retire before blindsiding her readers with this quiet little masterpiece which was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction. Micah Mortimer is a computer repair man who seeks refuge in routine, timetabling his daily chores and even to some extent his relationship with his girlfriend, until she declares she is being kicked out of her apartment and Micah is forced into a reckoning with his implacable faith in the accepted order of things. Tyler's great skill as a novelist is to expose the universal truths that are found in the most ordinary of lives but she is also unfashionably fascinated by goodness and Micah, for all his humdrum mediocrity, is one of her most memorable creations.

French Braid (2022)

Another long-view multi-generational family drama, this one concentrating over several decades on the Garretts who communicate so badly they often feel like strangers to each other. The first pivotal event occurs in 1959 when father Robin tries to teach his young son David how to swim during a family holiday; the second a couple of decades later when his wife, Mercy, a painter, gradually moves out of the family home into her studio, an event which for years goes unmentioned. Tyler's knack for refreshing the familiar is as acute as ever, but this is also an elegiac novel profoundly concerned with the passing of time.

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