Gentle clash of cultures in Tyler's Baltimore

Review Novel

May 14, 2006|By CLARE MCHUGH | CLARE MCHUGH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Digging to America

Anne Tyler

Alfred A. Knopf / 277 pages / $24.95

Is there a child in America who hasn't heard the myth that if you start digging a hole in the back yard, and you dig deep enough, you'll end up in China? Anne Tyler turns this image on its head for her touching new novel, and writes about what it's like to come from somewhere else and end up in the United States, as a child or as an adult.

Digging to America revolves around the adoption - from South Korea - of two infant girls. The Baltimore families who wait anxiously for the babies at BWI in 1997 couldn't be more different. The extended Donaldson clan - warm, hearty and boisterous - stands at the gate with balloons and video cameras, loudly celebrating the arrival of little Jin-Ho. The Yazdans, an Iranian-American couple accompanied by Mr. Yazdan's widowed mother, collect their new baby in a far more restrained manner. But the two families strike up a friendship, which Tyler uses to explore the many ways cultural differences can play themselves out.

Maryam, the widowed Mrs. Yazdan, is that typical Tyler creation, the semi-oddball. A person of strong will and starchy temperament, Maryam is not against passion but finds American effusiveness off-putting. She muses often about an immigrant's untethered fate, although she has lived in Baltimore for 39 years, raised her son here and has no desire to return to Iran, a country so changed in the ensuing decades that it can never count as her home again. But settling permanently in America does not make one an American, and the diffidence that Maryam feels about her adopted country becomes a major theme of the novel.

Although Maryam's son Sami is so gleefully American that he feels most comfortable when manning the grill in the backyard of his suburban McMansion, he did choose to marry an Iranian girl, who came to this country with her parents after the 1979 revolution. Maryam looks down on her in-laws - looking down is her favorite stance - and she suspects that Ziba's parents were cozy with the shah, whom she abhorred. Tyler's late husband was an Iranian-American psychiatrist, Taghi Modarressi, and she obviously draws upon her exposure to the Iranian emigre world to create these fictional families. Indeed, the book is vastly enlivened by Tyler's use of Persian phrases, plus descriptions of the cuisines and the mores of the Iranian community.

But in Digging to America, Tyler also holds up a mirror to the wider American culture, especially the contemporary obsession with child-rearing that makes young children kings and queens in their households. Jin-Ho's mother, an earnest Mount Washington matron called Bitsy, is so caught up in current thinking on child development that she wears black and white for the entire first year of motherhood "because babies can only see black and white."

Ziba Yazdan, although more glamorous and just as devoted to her child as Bitsy, is often cowed by her friend's politically correct convictions on how to parent. But it's notable that although the all-American Donaldsons chose to keep Jin-Ho's Korean name and dress her often in Korean garb, the less-established Yazdans name their daughter Susan and are most anxious about getting her into - and paying for - a fancy private school.

You'll find yourself laughing at all the apt and telling details Tyler summons up to capture how these two families interact - and often fail to understand each other. But the poignancy of the book comes from the author's deep empathy for her two oldest characters, Maryam and Dave, who is Bitsy's father. They both look back at their lives and recall their late spouses and marvel at how fleeting, and precious, are the moments of true connection.

Clare McHugh is an editor at Time Inc.

A city's storyteller

It's fair to say that not since H.L. Mencken has a writer been so associated with Baltimore as Anne Tyler. The reason is easy to fathom. Not only has the 65-year old writer, a winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, lived here most of her adult life, but all but three of her published novels are set in or near Baltimore. The city is no accidental bystander in her work either, but a tangible, decidedly shopworn and, yes, eccentric presence, one familiar to anyone who has lived here any length of time. Her quirky characters are not always admirable, but Tyler's affection for the city and region is quietly apparent.

John Updike once said Tyler "is not merely good, she is wickedly good." To an uncommon degree, critics have largely agreed.

Tyler's novels

An asterisk means a Baltimore or Maryland setting:

If Morning Ever Comes (1964)

The Tin Can Tree (1965)

A Slipping-Down Life (1970)

The Clock Winder (1972)*

Celestial Navigation (1974)*

Searching for Caleb (1975)*

Earthly Possessions (1977)*

Morgan's Passing (1980)*

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant *(1982)

The Accidental Tourist (1985)*

Breathing Lessons (1988)*

Saint Maybe (1991)*

Ladder of Years (1995)*

A Patchwork Planet (1998)*

Back When We Were Grownups (2001)*

The Amateur Marriage (2003)*

Digging to America (2006)*

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