I love how books can make us feel connected to people, even if they’re far away. Just before I left Melbourne my very dear friend Lexi leant me her copy of Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread (which I wrote about here). Two months later I was at the Mauer Park Flohmarkt (a huge, sprawling flea market here in Berlin) and found this second-hand copy of Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Immediately I could imagine telling Lexi that I’d bought it, as if we were drinking tea on her couch or chatting about books over coffee in Thornbury.
Anne Tyler writes stories about unconventional, dysfunctional families. She writes about the failures of the American dream. About suburbia in all of its ordinariness, in its pleasure and its pain. If you like reading Meg Wolitzer, Jonathan Franzen or Richard Yates, you should be reading Anne Tyler too. I honestly don’t know what’s taken me so long to find her books, but I’ll be looking out for them for years to come.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the story of the Tull family, which begins with Pearl, the matriarch, in the opening lines:
While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her. It twitched her lips and rustled her breath, and she felt her son lean forward from where he kept watch by her bed. “Get . . .” she told him. “You should have got . . .”
You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say, the way we started extra children after the first child fell so ill.
Like A Spool of Blue Thread, Tyler uses descriptions of the house itself to mirror the personality of the matriarch and paint the mood of both the house and its inhabitants:
Cody looked around him and noticed, for the first time, that there was something pinched and starved about the way this house was decorated. Not a single perfume bottle or china figurine sat upon his mother’s bureau. No pictures hung on the walls. Even the bedside tables were completely bare; and in all the drawers in this room, he knew, every object would be aligned and squared precisely—the clothing organized by type and color, whites grading into pastels and then to darks; comb and brush parallel; gloves paired and folded like a row of clenched fists. Who wouldn’t leave such a place?
As you’ve likely guessed by now, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is bleak. This is not a happy Hollywood story that its title may suggest. This is a family wrestling with a father that abandons them as children, and a mother struggling to cope on her own who shows very little love and affection to her children. The coldness of the mother and the absence of the father affects the three Tull children in different ways. Cody, the eldest, seems most motivated by fleeing the poverty of his childhood and works hard to build himself a successful business, but can’t shake off the petty jealousies he feels towards his siblings, particularly toward his brother Ezra. Jenny, the youngest and only daughter, becomes a doctor, moving away for college. As the years pass she struggles to connect with her mother or to face the family home:
Jenny saw her twice a year—at Christmas and just before the start of school each September. She made excuses for the other holidays, and during the summers she worked at a clothing shop in a small town near her college. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see her mother. She often thought of her wiry energy, the strength she had shown in raising her children single-handed, and her unfailing interest in their progress. But whenever Jenny returned, she as dampened by its lack of light, the cramped feeling of its papered rooms, a certain grim spareness.
Ezra, the middle-child, is the family diplomat, endlessly trying to reunite the family around a table at the restaurant where he works. There is a beautiful calmness and gentle-touch to Ezra which lightens the otherwise heavy novel. Ezra’s belief that food can bring people together is not only a beautiful sentiment for his family, but also becomes his plan for the restaurant he inherits from the opposing matriarchal figure in his life, Mrs Scarletti, as his friend Josiah reveals to Jenny:
“Ezra’s going to have him a place where people come just like to a family dinner,” Josiah said. “He’ll cook them one thing special each day and dish it out on their plates and everything will be solid and wholesome, really homelike.”
“Ezra told you that?”
“Really just like home.”
“Well, I don’t know, maybe people go to restaurants to get away from home.”
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is tough going. The family ploughs through difficulties with little redemption in sight, but there’s something in Tyler’s prose that keeps you going. Her writing gives full weight to each of the characters, never picking favourites, so that you feel yourself rallying for the health and happiness of each of the children. She is not shy to pick at the scabs families try to hide behind bandaids and long sleeved shirts, and in doing so, she holds a mirror up to our everyday, middle-class suburban lives like few others.
This book is an ode to making it out the other side. Of surviving trauma and loss and finding your own way. But it’s also about the inescapable reality of where we come from, and the people who made us. That we’ll always follow traits of our parents, whether we like them or not. But what’s important is that we acknowledge this, not battle against it, and then make a life for ourselves that we feel proud of.
I am a traveller. I somehow feel more myself away from home. I know many others feel the same. It’s not about escaping or running away, it’s about finding my own place. I am overly sensitive — to noise, to light, to cold, to aggravation. Though travelling often forces me to push through these sensitivities in order to make it out the other side (planes are a perfect storm of all these aggravations, all in one inescapable bus in the sky), travel also gives me space. Away from home I have room to think away from everyday details. I feel like I have permission to switch off in a way that I don’t at home. I don’t have to read the newspaper every day, for example. But Cody and Jenny’s journeys away from home also reminded me that it’s not an easy way to find peace. In their case they both had trouble shaking off the trauma of their childhood. As their mother aged they struggled to be the children she wanted them to be and the the adults they wished to become. Perhaps Ezra is the bravest for staying home and trying to make sense of things head-on.
What Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant reaffirmed to me is that there is no right way to work out who you are, where you come from and where you want to go. There is no right way to become an adult. Some choices are made for you, some you make yourself, but either way it’s up to you to own up to your life and make the most of it. I realise that I sound a little like someone who is dangerously close to using the word ‘mindful’ or of drinking kombucha tea. But now that I have my visa, we have our apartment, we have time and space, it feels like a great responsibility to make the most of it, but it also leads to inevitable questions, for me anyway, about why we’re here, what we want to be and where we want to go. Perhaps the children in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant didn’t give themselves this time or space. Maybe I’m forgetting my privilege of being in this position in the first place. Or maybe, as I’m want to do, I’m overthinking everything. But new cities, fresh air and open space will do that to me. I can only hope I enjoy the journey while it lasts, and have a period of my life that I’m proud to look back on.
In the lead up to my visa interview I was getting increasingly nervous (as I wrote about here), but I was also having some mixed reactions about home. I wasn’t ready to leave Berlin, I wanted the adventure to continue and for my love affair with this city to be given time to bloom. Yet I found myself craving vegemite for the first time in years, listening to Australian music and daydreaming about long lazy breakfasts in Melbourne cafes. As I wrote about in my post for When The Night Comes, when I’m homesick, I eat pancakes. For my partner’s birthday a week earlier I’d made pancakes as a treat from the ingredients we had lying around the house, and they didn’t just work, they were delicious. So now we have a new recipe for pancakes, made with banana and cinnamon to naturally sweeten the batter and hold the often precarious gluten-free ingredients together. The batter is lightened by gently folding through the fluffy egg-whites which build height to the cooked pancakes too. I make these in the style Australians would call pikelets - about as thick as an American-style pancake, but small enough to fit two or three in a medium fry-pan.
Mash two bananas (overripe is better), then mix in half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Separate the two eggs, adding the yolks to the banana mix, then alternate mixing in half the flour, half the milk, then repeat. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then beat in one-third of the whites into the banana mix, before gently folding in the remaining two-thirds of the egg whites to create a light, fluffy mixture. Cook for a few minutes on each side until golden in a frying pan on a medium heat, with a little oil and butter added to stop the pancakes from sticking. I serve ours with vanilla or plain Greek yoghurt, maple syrup, berries and pepitas. Without sweet ingredients in the batter you can afford to give yourself a little extra syrup or honey, which also work really nicely with the nutty buckwheat flour (wholewheat flour would also work well, as would spelt or chestnut flour). Pancakes are a little bit of home that I can make for myself, wherever I may be.
I spent the last week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, plus a night in London on the way home. I've documented parts of the trip on Instagram, but there's so much left to process, reflect on, and write about. One thing that struck me though is that at every bookshop I went to (and there were a lot) Elena Ferrante was front and centre of every window display, of every best-seller list, of every staff-picks shelf. How brilliant it was to see a woman writer in the spotlight. There are countless think-pieces on #ferrantefever, but I am hesitant to read anything about the Neopolitan novels until I've set aside time to dive in myself. But after the summer of the literary blockbuster - Go Set A Watchmen, Purity, and The Story of the Lost Child - Flavorwire reminds us that as we step from summer to autumn, there is plenty to be excited about. I'm particularly looking forward to checking out Joanna Walsh and Eka Kurniawan, and I cannot wait to read Patti Smith's follow-up to Just Kids.