“Isn’t it odd,” Maryam said. “Just like that, a completely unknown person is a part of their family forever. Well, of course that’s true of a birth child, too, but … I don’t know, this seems more astonishing.” “To me, both are astonishing,” Dave said. “I remember before Bitsy was born, I used to worry she might not be compatible with the two of us. I told Connie, ‘Look at how long we took deciding whom we’d marry, but this baby’s waltzing in out of nowhere, not so much as a background check or a personality quiz. What if it turns out we don’t have any shared interests?’ ”
Last week, I posted a review by the same author and as mentioned at the end of it, I was looking forward to reading the author’s back catalogue as it seems I’ve been late to the party. As you can see, I couldn’t resist picking up another of her books because the subject matter in Digging To America piqued my interest.
In this story, two families happen to meet at the airport on the day that they both adopt a baby from Korea. They decide to stay in touch and quickly form a friendship that not only allows the two girls to meet up regularly but give their parents an opportunity to share their experiences as adoptive parents.
The story focuses on the two girls’ growing up in a foreign country seen through the lens of their family members. There is the inevitable tendency to compare when and why one of the girls achieves a milestone first but what made this story so compelling is the gradual revelation of the broader picture offered by their different family histories, one is of Iranian origin and the other American. The complexities of their cultural backgrounds and world views add a lively addition to their friendship and affection.
Anne Tyler writes about real people, each of the characters depicted with their strengths, flaws and insecurities. It isn’t essentially about the girls and their experience of growing up in America but what it means to create a family and make thew best of it as you can. Further there is a fascinating exploration about what it means to adopt a child you have not carried in your own womb.
“When Bitsy looked back on Jin-Ho’s arrival, it didn’t seem like a first meeting. It seemed that Jin-Ho had been traveling toward them all along and Bitsy’s barrenness had been part of the plan, foreordained so that they could have their true daughter.”
The two adopted girls bind the families together through an annual get together to commemorate their arrival day. It becomes a custom that they have created beyond religious meaning and to which they all look forward to.
If I had to pick my favourite character it would have to be Maryam, the Iranian grandmother, who despite thirty-five years in America still feels like an outsider.
‘You start to believe that your life is defined by your foreignness. You think everything would be different if only you belonged. ‘If only I were back home,’ you say, ‘and you forget that you wouldn’t belong there either, after all these years. It wouldn’t be home at all anymore.’
Maryam wonders about the meaning of ‘home’ and how places can change a person and the meaning of belonging. The book is full of these engaging thoughts and dialogues, moments of ordinary life that the author is able to convey in a gripping way. Here is an example of an emotional paragraph where Maryam describes the memories of her late husband who died of cancer.
‘I thought, if only I could mourn the man I first knew. But instead there were the more recent versions, the sick one then the sicker one and then the one who was so cross and hated me for disturbing him with pills and food and fluids, and finally the faraway, sleepy one who in fact was not there at all. I thought, I wish I had been aware of the day he really died – the day his real self died. That was the day I should have grieved most deeply.’
Due to the two families’ pressure, Maryam and Dave, Bitsy’s father, attempt to date and spend time together after the latter’s wife dies of cancer as well. Both are kind, head-strong characters and the idea of getting the two families even closer together through a possible union between them is another theme that Tyler introduces with wit and sensitivity. I won’t give away the plot of course because it is delightful and finishes on a perfect note with just as I would have imagined Maryam acting in the end.
Needless to say, I look forward to picking up another novel by Anne Tyler soon.
The Book in three words: fun, moving and insightful
I’d love to know your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it!
Friday August 15th, 1997. Two tiny Korean babies are delivered to two very different Baltimore families. Every year, on the anniversary of ‘Arrival Day’ the two families celebrate together, with more and more elaborately competitive parties, as little Susan and Jin-ho take roots and become American.
About the author
Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated at nineteen from Duke University and went on to do graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University. She has published 20 novels, her debut novel being If Morning Ever Comes in (1964). Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons , was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.