Anne Tyler has built a career on mapping the inner life of the American middle class family. She has delivered a remarkable 20 novels on the subject, from A Spool of Blue Thread, released a few months ago, to Breathing Lessons, the winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize. For the past 50 years, Tyler has unapologetically tackled questions of family, relationships, and belonging, and her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, represents a fitting start to her prolific career. Part bildungsroman, part family drama, the book offers a meditation on the unfulfillment of home, and it contains all of the penetrating social observations that have made Tyler famous.
Set in Sandhill, North Carolina, a “small and clean and perfect” town where everyone knows everyone, If Morning Ever Comes begins with the protagonist, 25-year-old Ben Joe Hawkes, deciding to go home for the first time after a semester at Columbia Law. Ben Joe is a recognizably selfish and sheltered post-adolescent, at least in part the result of growing up the only male among eight women (six sisters, a mother, and a grandmother). Although it is clear that the women have well cared for Ben Joe his whole life, he still feels that he “heads up” the Hawkes family, and the self-imposed duty to protect and care for them all preoccupies him in New York. The women, of course, manage fine without him, but Ben Joe spends most of his time at school combing through their letters for any hint that they may need him to come back. The excuse Ben Joe has been waiting for comes when his mother casually mentions that his elder sister Joanne has split from her husband. Ben Joe barely asks for details of the separation before he jumps on the next train back to Sandhill.
If Morning Ever Comes transcends Ben Joe’s flailing to present an intimate and compassionate portrait of a family that has not dealt with its tragedies.
The novel unfolds over the course of the next few days, during Ben Joe’s brief and unremarkable visit home. Not much actually happens—there are significant flashbacks, but mostly, the characters chat with each other and run errands, which feels true to how the women, with limited career and educational options, likely spend most of their lives. Without any family problems to solve, Ben Joe will spend his time aimlessly revisiting places and people he used to know while grappling with his new, attenuated relationship with his family.
It is a deceptively simple setup, but If Morning Ever Comes transcends Ben Joe’s flailing to present an intimate and compassionate portrait of a family that has not dealt with its tragedies. The Hawkes family emphasis on decorum and respectability requires a deep and near-immediate interment of pain—so many topics are taboo that conversations rarely deviate from the pragmatic and present tense. It makes for a claustrophobically happy home, but Tyler is a master of observation, and in her hands even everyday discussions about the dishes and the groceries become hypnotically engrossing. Every interaction offers an opportunity to tell the reader something crucial about a character or relationship, and Tyler seizes each one. She conveys volumes about characters with the smallest details (one of my favorite such descriptions, of an ex-girlfriend of Ben Joe: “She was the kind of person who rumpled easily”), and the characters and their relationships to each other become wonderfully realistic as a result.
Tyler is a master of observation, and in her hands even everyday discussions about the dishes and the groceries become hypnotically engrossing.
Still, the novel does not always satisfy. Though written in the 1960s, it keeps concerns about class and race at bay and only feints toward the effects that they have had on the characters’ lives. The decision to center the story on Ben Joe, rather than on any of the women who surround him, also sometimes disappoints, though it does serve to highlight the advantages that men received during the era. Unfortunately, however, Ben Joe is probably the least interesting person we meet—his sister Joanne in particular seems worthy of her own book—and it is frustrating that many of the women in his life remain blurs at his expense.
Despite this, it is hard not to get lost in a novel so ambitious and skillfully wrought. The book effortlessly moves between pathos and comedy, and in the end, it settles into a confident, moody cynicism. Even among the people with whom you share the most history, it suggests, alienation, not intimacy, is the status quo. It is not an uplifting message—the book favors acuity over hope—but it is one that its readers will feel deeply.