"The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted."
Thus does Anne Tyler plunge into "The Beginner's Goodbye," a compulsively readable, wise, witty and poignant tale of a man devastated by the sudden death of his wife -- and his gradual awakening to self-awareness and a new appreciation of life itself through random encounters with her in the backyard, on the sidewalk, at the market.
Like all Tyler's novels, it's set in Baltimore and offers a cast of characters delightfully familiar in their quirky ordinariness. It's the story of a marriage cut short by accidental death, a story told backward, in retrospect, through the filter of grief and regret.
Aaron Woolcott is widowed late one afternoon in August 2007 when the giant oak tree in the backyard topples over on the sunporch -- and his wife, Dorothy.
With plainspoken immediacy and devastating understatement, Tyler writes: "Two men staggered out of the branches with a big heavy pile of old clothes. They laid the pile on a stretcher and my heart lurched..."
Dorothy is taken to Johns Hopkins ("a gigantic and unfeeling Dickensian labyrinth where patients could languish forgotten for hours") where she dies days later, never having regained consciousness.
Months of grieving follow, as Tyler with pitch-perfect simplicity, documents the heartbreak of the humdrum -- the mug left in the sink, the clothes in the laundry pile. Aaron occupies himself at work, fends off awkward gestures of sympathy from his sister and co-workers and neighbors and busies himself in his destroyed house. At one point, he muses: "That's one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with."
Months after Dorothy's death, he awakes from a dream that she hasn't called in a long time, to realize afresh that she's dead.
"I can't do this, I thought. I don't know how. They don't offer any courses in this; I haven't had any practice."
Then Dorothy starts to appear at odd moments. The story of their marriage is gradually revealed as Aaron looks back with a dawning awareness of missed cues, the lost chances at connection, through seemingly random conversations with his dead wife.
Aaron Woolcott met Dr. Dorothy Rosales, an oncology radiologist, while researching a book, "The Beginner's Cancer," for the family vanity press publishing business (Other popular titles include "The Beginner's Dinner Party," "The Beginner's Guide to the Colicky Baby," "The Beginner's Heart Attack," etc.)
"She was wearing a white coat so crisp that it could have stood on its own, but her trousers were creased and rumpled.. they buckled over the insteps of her cloddish shoes and trailed the ground at her heels. This made her seem even shorter than she actually was, and wider. I liked her broad, tan face and her tranquil expression. I congratulated myself for perceiving that her unbecomingly chopped hair was -- as they say -- black as a raven's wing."
Aaron, whose right arm and leg were crippled by a mysterious illness at age 2, had been fussed over all his life by his mother and older sister, Nandina. He found Dorothy's no-nonsense directness refreshing (her first remark to him was "What's wrong with your arm?"), and they were married four months later. (He was 24, she 32.)
Tyler charmingly captures the thrill of the newness of connection, for this unlikely pairing, from their first date (dinner in a restaurant so dark Dorothy complains she can't see the menu) to the first days of marriage when Aaron is thrilled by Dorothy's references to "my husband," the discovery that she is a "cuddler," his surprise that his workaholic wife would take time off to shop for a vacuum cleaner.
Over the 11 years of their marriage, though, what at first seemed to Aaron quirky and original -- Dorothy's lack of interest in her appearance, in food, in being a caretaker -- becomes annoying. He recalls "that familiar, weary, helpless feeling, the feeling that we were confined in some kind of rodent cage, wrestling together doggedly, neither one of us ever winning."
Although Aaron is an atheist, he doesn't want to quiz Dorothy about her mysterious appearances in fear she won't come back. Through the random meetings, he slowly becomes aware of the missed opportunities, of Dorothy's feelings for him despite outward appearances, of his failure to understand her, to let her close: "I felt as if heavy furniture were being moved around in my head."
In this her 19th novel, Tyler has crafted an unusual and perfect jewel of a love story.
Jean Westmoore is The News' children's book reviewer.
The Beginner's Goodbye
By Anne Tyler
198 pages $24.95.