My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Tolstoy famously said “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant shows one way a family can be miserable.
The novel opens with Pearl Tull, the matriarch of a small family lying on her deathbed. We then go back through Pearl’s life, marriage, and parenthood. “She’d been a frantic, angry, sometimes terrifying mother; and … she’d never shown the faintest interest in her community but dwelt in it like a visitor from a superior neighborhood, always wearing her hat when out walking, keeping her doors tightly shut when at home. … Her life had been very long indeed but never full; stunted was more like it.” [p 296].
Buck, Pearl’s husband and the kids’ dad, left when the kids were little so Pearl, totally ill equipped, was left to handle the kids. I think today we’d diagnose her as bi-polar. When the kids weren’t perfect she’s scream at them: “‘Parasites,’she told them. ‘I wish you’d all die, and let me go free. I wish I’d find you dead in your bed.'” [p 54]
The kids dealt with this in their own ways. Cody, the eldest, became a self-made man and had as little to do with the family as possible. Jealous of his brother, Cody stole Ezra’s fiancé.
Ezra, stayed in town, living at home. He worked at a restaurant until it became his and he renamed it the Homesick Restaurant. He always tried to have a family meal at the restaurant but they always broke up before the end – sometimes before the beginning.
Jenny threw herself into her studies at medical school and work. Her husband left her as well and she ended up in a different type of relationship.
The ending was strong and not saccharine. Anne Tyler is a great writer who builds clearly defined characters with definite and clear motivations. Her narrative is exceptional; in describing a baby with croup she writes “The baby’s breathing was choked and rough, like something pulled through tightly packed gravel.” [p 1] This imagery is rich, descriptive, perfect.
I’ve now read 6 of the 15 Pulitzer prize winners awarded since 2000. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was a runner up in 1983. Anne Tyler won in 1989 with Breathing Lessons. This is a great source of books to read.
If you are a dedicated fiction reader, you’ve read this a long time ago; if somehow it has slipped through the cracks, go get it now.