I’ve been reading Anne Tyler since I first read The Accidental Tourist. After that, I gradually read most of her other books and have tried to keep up with the few published since then. I do like her earlier work best, but I really enjoyed Digging to America, her newest novel.
The main characters are the Yazdan family and the Donaldson family. It’s hard to identify any specific main character, since the novel is narrated by several members of these two families, but my favorite character was Maryam, the Yazdan matriarch.
The Yazdans and the Donaldsons meet at the airport where they’re waiting for a plane bringing adopted Korean daughters to both families. They keep in touch because of this and become close friends over the years in spite of having different cultural ideas about raising children, socializing, family life, and so on.
The theme of belonging or trying to belong runs throughout the novel. The Yazdans, an Iranian-American family, and particularly Maryam, who came to the United States from Iran decades ago, work hard to both retain their own culture and find a way to belong to American culture. Their ambivalence leads them to mock their American friends’ customs and ideas while at the same time attempting to change themselves to seem more assimilated.
The Donaldsons, meanwhile, often seem to be trying to create their own customs and traditions, such as an annual arrival party to celebrate the day the two families’ daughters arrived in the United States and an annual leaf-raking party. In the same way the Donaldsons adopted a child because they couldn’t conceive their own child, they also try to adopt the customs of other cultures because they don’t have their own. There is such a sea of options for traditions, values, lifestyles and so forth in the United States that many of us choose those that fit our lives and reject those that don’t. The Yazdans, however, have traditions that have been handed down through their close-knit extended family for generations; the Donaldsons’ mixed-up bag of customs that they have invented, adopted or borrowed then changed to suit their purposes confuses and sometimes offends the Yazdans.
In short, the Donaldsons are attracted to the Yazdans because as they are beginning their own family, they want to feel a connection to people who have strong family ties, while the Yazdans are attracted to the Donaldsons because the Donaldsons represent “real” Americans to them.
Maryam, who is such an observer of other people, retains a certain reserved distance that suits her own more introverted personality. It’s hard for me, also an introvert, to imagine what it would have been like for Maryam growing up in a family compound where extended family members gathered to socialize every evening. Maryam’s status as an outsider in the U.S. appeals to her because it allows her to remain fairly detached, but she doesn’t realize that she’s spent her life embracing her outsider status until she’s in her sixties.