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Bookmark: Cover hides what's really inside

May 17, 2012|By Julia Keller

Her publisher surely meant well, but the cover of Anne Tyler's new novel "The Beginner's Goodbye" (Knopf) is all wrong.

The cover — a pair of elegant cups and saucers displayed against a doily-white background — might reasonably be subtitled "Sunday Tea at Grandma's." While I am a fan of both tea and grandmas, and currently have no disputes pending with doilies, the cover just doesn't work.

The novel supposedly summarized by this gentle, simple, even soporific image is neither gentle nor simple. And its insights will keep you up nights.

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I sympathize with the designer's dilemma. Concocting a cover for a Tyler novel would be a daunting task. Tyler, like Alice McDermott, Penelope Lively, William Trevor and a handful of other like-souled contemporary authors, typically writes more about moods and ideas and inclinations than tangible things. Her people do more leaning than plunging. More head-scratching than trigger-pulling. They tend to look at life sideways instead of straight on.

How, then, to illustrate the essence of a Tyler character like Aaron Woolcott, whimsical narrator of "The Beginner's Goodbye"? How to indicate in a visual way the particular character of Aaron's thinking — which is hesitant, diffident, roundabout, but finally stubborn and self-assured? A lot goes on in a Tyler story, but it's not the kind of action that lends itself to pictures. A graphic novel based on "The Beginner's Goodbye" would consist of little more than a tree, a stethoscope, a book and a swing set. Everything else happens inside Aaron's mind.

The novel features a killer of an opening sentence: "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted." Uh-oh, you think. We're back in the oft-traveled land of "Ghost," the 1990 movie starring Demi Moore as the widow who doesn't know her dead husband is stalking her.

Well, no. We're not. It's true that Aaron sees his deceased wife, Dorothy, around town, but only occasionally. And that's not his biggest issue. His biggest issue is the realization that he and Dorothy were not terribly well-matched. Is your grief still legitimate if the spouse for whom you're grieving was obtuse, temperamental, self-absorbed? Does an early death like Dorothy's — from a freak accident — lose its poignancy if your memories of the deceased are not all happy ones?

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