Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler (1977)

This year I’m joining in Liz’s readalong for all of the Anne Tyler novels that I own and haven’t read yet – or at least the ones I can access; others are marooned in a box in the States. Earthly Possessions was Tyler’s seventh novel and is refreshingly different from the 12 of her books I’d read previously. (Liz’s review is here, and Cathy has also recently reviewed it here.) The action begins in a typical Maryland setting but soon hits the road. After years of coasting along unhappily, Charlotte Emory, 35, has finally decided to leave her preacher husband and their two children, and is at the bank in Clarion (a fictional town) to withdraw money for the journey. Jake Simms, recently escaped from the county jail, is here to get cash, too, and Charlotte is his sole hostage in the bungling robbery that follows.

The first-person narration struck me as rare for Tyler – though I’d have to go back to all the others I’ve read to confirm that they’re in the third-person omniscient, as in my memory – and the structure is very effective, alternating chapters about Jake and Charlotte’s hapless road trip to Florida with extended flashbacks to Charlotte’s earlier life, from childhood right up to the moment she decided to leave Saul. Her family background is similar to Daisy’s in Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries: both characters had an overweight mother who didn’t realize she was pregnant until all of a sudden she gave birth to a daughter. After her father’s death, Charlotte felt obliged to take over his photographic studio and she and her mother had lodgers in their unusual turreted home beside a gas station. One of these lodgers was Saul.

The title contrasts Saul’s heavenly concerns with the mess of life on earth. Charlotte is a Marie Kondo disciple avant la lettre, purging her home of superfluous furniture and cutting herself off from unnecessary people.

“My life has been a history of casting off encumbrances, paring down to the bare essentials, stripping for the journey. Possessions make me anxious.”

“I gave up hope. Then in order not to mind too much I loosened my roots, floated a few feet off, and grew to look at things with a faint, pleasant humorousness that spiced my nose like the beginnings of a sneeze. … My world began to seem…temporary. I saw that I must be planning to leave, eventually.”

A passive woman reaching a breaking point and leaving the life she’s been stuck in is a setup that anticipates Ladder of Years, one of my favourites from Tyler, and the protagonists’ emotional circuit and eventual destination are similar. Themes from The Clock Winder, and from her work in general, recur: a big, quirky family; mental illness; brothers squabbling over a woman; secrets; and bereavement. I enjoyed the touch of reverse Stockholm syndrome as Jake comes to rely on Charlotte for help with placating his pregnant girlfriend. And I was delighted to see a little mention of a character who “suffered one of his lapses and lost three hundred dollars at the Bowie Racetrack” – I grew up in Bowie and my parents lived on Race Track Road, just down from the (now derelict) track, for 13 years.

I’d never heard of this novel before I found it at a charity shop a few years ago. It ended up being a real gem, covering a lot of literal and psychological ground in its 200 small-format pages and doing something a bit different from the standard Tyler narrative while still staying true to her trademark themes and bittersweet sense of humour. I heartily recommend this one.

 

Favourite lines:

“I saw that all of us lived in a sort of web, criss-crossed by strings of love and need and worry.”

“Oh, I’ve never had the knack of knowing I was happy right while the happiness was going on.”

 

My rating:

 

The 13 Tyler novels I’ve read, in order of preference (greatest to least), are:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Ladder of Years

The Accidental Tourist

Earthly Possessions

Breathing Lessons

Digging to America

Vinegar Girl

Clock Dance

Back When We Were Grown-ups

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

Redhead by the Side of the Road

The Clock Winder

 

Next up for me will be Saint Maybe in late June.

22 responses

  1. I don’t know this one. It seems I should plug the gap.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The other early one of hers that I recently tried, The Clock Winder, was not a great example. But this one is well worth seeking out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Celestial Navigation had chapters narrated in the first person by different characters, I loved the voice in this one and the plot, too, really so deftly handled, as well, she’s a real technical expert by now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, one I haven’t read. I’m glad you could let me know that she’s used the first person before.

      Like

  3. We share two favorites of hers – Dinner and Ladder – so I know I will enjoy this one as well. Maybe I’ll get to it this year. It’s been a while since I read one of hers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it sounds like we have similar taste in Tylers! This was a hidden gem.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am the worst Maryland transplant ever (I’m just 30 minutes from Bowie!) in that I have yet to read an Anne Tyler book. I don’t know what wrong with me, but I better fix it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s funny! I have a Baltimore friend who’s never read her either. Any of my top three above would be a good way to give her a try.

      (I’ve been meaning to tell you, though you may have seen it already, that there’s a character with the first name Rebecca and the middle name Moon in the novel Luster by Raven Leilani. I think it’s your maiden name rather than middle, but I still thought you’d find that amusing!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I feel like Tyler will be a good summer read–on my list!

        And, now I must add LUSTER, and should have had that on my list before. That’s a funny coincidence. Yes, Moon is my maiden name. It’s common enough–English, in my case–but I still have new writer friends sometimes ask if it’s a pen name. (Honestly, I’d come up with something better if it were.)

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  5. Yes, this does sound good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d certainly recommend it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I liked it a lot – planning to read The Accidental Tourist and possibly Saint Maybe this year too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m looking forward to Saint Maybe. My mother is not a Tyler fan but read that one for book club and thought it was great.

      Like

  7. Sounds great! I’ve only read a few of her books, but they’ve all been in third-person omniscient, so it would be interesting to try this one. Of the ones not on your list, I can recommend The Amateur Marriage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! I’m keen to get to The Amateur Marriage and will join in the readalong for it if I manage to get back to the States this summer and can pick up my copy.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. That’s so fun, that you have a personal connection to the setting and can appreciate the details! I wish I was following along more with Liz’s project, but moving away from backlists this year has really shaken up my habits (and introduced a much more demanding set of library duedates–not complaining).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I grew up just 30 miles from Baltimore, so it’s only right that I should be a Tyler fan 🙂 Though, like I said to RMR above, I have a Baltimorean friend who’s never tried her!

      Never too late to join in. Redhead’s only from last year if that’s new enough for you?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do have a copy of RedHead on suspended hold at the library and I might get to it this year. *looks nervously at stacks*

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, go on. It’s such a short and easy read.

        Like

  9. thecontentreader | Reply

    I really loved this one, maybe one of my favourites by Tyler so far. Charlotte struck me like a very competent woman, and it is no surprise that she, almost, takes charge of the run-away trip. She has much more experience of life and people than Jake. I felt that Charlotte and Elizabeth in ‘The Clock Winder’ are two similar characters. Maybe, that is why, these two books, and characters, are my favourites.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was pleasantly surprised by this one given that I had never heard of it before I found it in a charity shop. That’s a good point about Charlotte and Elizabeth: both on the periphery of a large family and overwhelmed by it.

      Like

  10. […] most of the novels I own and hadn’t read yet. I’ve discovered a few terrific new-to-me ones: Earthly Possessions, Saint Maybe, The Amateur Marriage … but there have also been some slight duds. Alas, this one […]

    Like

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