“The Accidental Tourist” by Anne Tyler

I think sometimes the worth of a book can be measured by how swiftly it is read, but it’s a measurement which cuts both ways. There are the books you devour as a reader because they are page-turningly good. There are other books, equally good, which you read slowly in order to savour every beautifully chosen word and story element.

Sadly “The Accidental Tourist” became, for me at least, a book which I read slowly, wondering all the while if I was wasting my time in finishing it. The central figure, Macon Leary, is an author of guidebooks for businessmen who want to travel without encountering anything “foreign”. He and his wife have lost their only child and it is tearing apart their marriage. We meet him just after his wife, Sarah, has left him.

Now I am not a fan of books featuring anti-heros. I like to find as least one empathetic character in a story whom I can follow and root for. Until almost two-thirds of the way through this 353 page novel, I simply didn’t care what happened to Macon because he was so boring. He was deliberately boring, I could see that. He was the quintessential male who is unable to express emotion. He, and his rather quirky siblings, had created a supremely insular world where they thought they could be safe. Ultimately, after a much younger and spontaneous woman takes him under her wing, he learns how to find a new way to live, so I am glad that I finished reading the book,  but I wish his redemption could have begun a little sooner.

As for the lesser characters – there is a lovely sub-plot where Macon’s playboy editor falls for his mousey sister Rose, his son’s dog deals with his own grief in a purely canine (and amusing) fashion, and an excellent brief scene when Macon brings his niece on a research trip and she admits to missing her deceased cousin and gets charmingly tipsy and confiding. In fact I think the book shines when it shows Macon with youngsters as we can see how much losing his child has drained him of any joy, but those scenes are too infrequent.

Tylers observational skills are excellent and I can see why she is so praised by other novellists. The plot moves swiftly and each character, from large to small, is well described.

As a former restaurant reviewer myself I loved how he got around the perennial question of how to jot down menu details without being spotted by staff (I used to nip into the bathroom and make notes). He simply folds the menu underneath him and claims he never got one, then brings the stolen one home for his research. Chefs beware!

Close to the end, Macon muses (perhaps echoing the author) that “just once he’d like to see a hero like himself – not a quitter, but a man who did face facts and give up gracefully when pressing onward was foolish.” This, I think is the core of what Tyler is trying to achieve in the book, to get us to root for an ordinary man, dealing with (sadly) a fairly ordinary problem. He is pushed around by life events and other, more passionate, people as he struggles to find peace. Personally I like my heros (and heroines) to dare to be foolish.

(read February 2011)

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