by Anne Tyler, 2006.
This could be my favorite Anne Tyler! It tells the story of two families, one Anglo-American and the other Iranian-American, who meet when they both adopt Korean orphans. The book takes them through about 6 or 7 years following the adoptions. Many of the characters are wonderfully developed and interesting (I found them to be more realistic and less eccentric than Tyler’s usual characters), especially the main character, Maryam Yazdan, widowed grandmother of one of the Korean adoptees. Maryam has always been an outsider, even in her home culture; now, after 40 years in America, she is very well-assimilated, but continues to feel excluded from the surrounding culture (while also feeling apart from the Iranian-American subculture).
I get the impression that Tyler, married for many years to an Iranian, must have really gotten this culture clash right. The novel is full of insights into the themes of cross-cultural adoption and friendships, being bicultural and bilingual, what it means to be an American and also to be an immigrant.
Some favorite quotes:
Living in a country where your native language is not spoken:
“Wouldn’t it feel like a permanent bereavement, to give up your native language?” (p. 116)
“[Maryam] wondered how they (Iranians) had lasted this long in a country where everything happened so fast and everybody knew all the rules without asking.” (p. 143)
(Comment: But we don’t know all the rules without asking. We also have to ask about how to behave and what to say when someone dies, how much and whether to tip, and lots of other things! Of course, there are many things that we simply absorb as we grow up; what Tyler says here is absolutely true.)
“It was a phenomenon that Maryam had often observed among Iranians. They’d be rattling along in Farsi and then some word borrowed from America, generally something technical like ‘television’ or ‘computer,’ would flip a switch in their brains and they would continue in English until a Farsi word flipped the switch back again.” (p. 143)
“It’s a lot of work, being foreign.” (Maryam, p. 179)
“He is so American…. He takes up so much space. He seems to be unable to let a room stay as it is; always he has to alter it, to turn on the fan or raise the thermostat or play a record or open the curtains. He has cluttered my life with cell phones and answering machines and a fancy-shmancy teapot that makes my tea taste like metal.”
“But, Mari-June,” Ziba dared to say, “That’s not American, it’s just …male.”
“No, it’s American,” Maryam said. “I can’t explain why, but it is. Americans are all larger than life. You think that if you keep company with them you will be larger too, but then you see that they’re making you shrink; they’re expanding and edging you out. I could feel myself slipping away….”
I loved this book.