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Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler

Alfred A. Knopf, March 12, 1982

She loves me ... she loves me not. Loves me ... loves me not. What will the final petal reveal? Here’s a guess: it will tell us that relationships are nothing if not complicated; or, as implied by the dance of the question itself, that love is an impossible paradox. The closer people become, the trickier it gets. While love facilitates a greater capacity to heal or nourish, it also makes it easier to inflict deeper wounds. Any given day provides a microcosm of the delicate balancing act.

“Cody, don’t you believe I want you three to be happy? Of course I do. Naturally. Why, I wouldn’t hold Ezra back for the world, if he’s so set on marrying that girl—though I don’t know what he sees in her, she’s so scrappy and hoydenish; I think she’s from Garrett Country or some such place and hardly wears shoes—you ought to see the soles of her feet sometime—but what I want to say is, I’ve never been one of those mothers who try and keep their sons for themselves. I honestly hope Ezra marries. I truly mean that. I want somebody taking care of him, especially him. You can manage on your own but Ezra is so, I don’t know, defenseless ... Of course I love you all the same amount, every bit the same, but ... well, Ezra is so good. You know?”

The dynamic of a nuclear family provides examples aplenty of the power and complications inherent in the messy contradictions of love. Take the Tull family in Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. They consistently find ways to disappoint each other and it is not because they lack for love.

“Why does it always turn out this way? How come we end up quarreling? Don’t we all love each other? Everything else aside,” she said, “don’t we all want the best for one another?”

Perhaps it is no more painful for anyone than Pearl, the matriarch, who is forced to witness her family breaking apart after having dedicated so much of her life and energy to her children. While it is easy to see why Pearl’s flaws make her a polarizing character, it is hard not to empathize with her struggle if not celebrate her resolve, or feel sadness when you recognize that despite all she has done to protect and provide, Pearl finds herself saddled with the burden of regret.

Often, like a child peering over the fence at somebody else’s party, she gazes wistfully at other families and wonders what their secret is. They seem so close. Is it that they’re more religious? Or stricter, or more lenient? Could it be the fact that they participate in sports? Read books together? Have some common hobby? Recently, she overheard a neighbor woman discussing her plans for Independence Day: her family was having a picnic. Every member—child or grownup—was cooking his or her specialty. Those who were too little to cook were in charge of the paper plates.

Pearl felt such a wave of longing that her knees went weak.

Maybe the problem is in expectation. And, is anything more bittersweet than the revisionist history of nostalgia that smudges memories into faded flashbacks that may or may not resemble the reality of how it all really went down? Whatever the truth, the past remains linked to simpler days—better days—and to the forks in the road that finalized the course of forever-afters.

Stories are retold from alternating points of view of the Tull family members in order to demonstrate how commonplace it is for individuals to have wildly disparaging reactions to shared experiences. We may think we are living the same moment and encountering it the same way but to be human means we are nothing if not unique with perspective and emotions entirely our own. If we can gain a better understanding or appreciation of this fundamental law of existence, then we may just be able to achieve greater empathy towards one another.

You know how you never think about a thing, or realize you remember it, and then all at once something will bring it all back?

I am struck by something Pearl observes. For many years, I had Chicago Cubs season tickets. I cannot count the number of home runs I witnessed, how many saves, blown saves, pickoff attempts, stolen bases, double plays, singles, and doubles. All the Ks, walks, runs, easy outs, line drives, you name it. But there was so much more to it than what could be etched in a box score or relayed through play-by-play. How many times did I look up to the sky to see clouds rolling in or go many other times did I smell rain in the distance only to be left obsessing over whether the Cubs would be able to get to the middle of the fifth with a lead? What about all of the other stories at play in the stands: families together, couples on a date, an old man sitting by himself game after game after game. There is something to be said about being there in person, being one of thirty or forty thousand unique points of view that converge and combine to make a communal experience so electric, so wildly full of life.

I convince myself now that HDTV offers an adequate substitute for the live experience (and without the cost or hassles). But so much is lost in the pixels. Like the experience of being part of the heartbeat of a stadium full of fans screaming at the top of their lungs when Rod Strickland ties up an NCAA regional final versus St. John’s after Dallas Comegys purposely misses a free-throw with just seconds left. Feeling Wrigley Field shake to its core as if hit by an earthquake after Kerry Wood blasts a home run in Game 7 of the NLCS. One of the oddest but forever coolest memories I have is of being at the fog bowl at Soldier Field. You could see the fog creeping in before it swallowed the stadium whole. There we were, an entire stadium of bewildered fans cheering not because we could actually witness what was happening on the field through the dense fog but simply because we could hear other fans cheering or because someone with a transistor radio was relaying what was happening. It was like being lost inside a misty dream. Together. As I was reading Tyler’s novel, it came rushing back, hitting me like a ton of bricks when Pearl explains to her middle child why she loves going to baseball games.

As I was reading Tyler’s novel, it came rushing back, hitting me like a ton of bricks when Pearl explains to her middle child why she loves going to baseball games.

“When you come in person,” she told Ezra, “you direct your own focus, you know? The TV or the radio men, they might focus on the pitcher when you want to see what first base is doing; and you don’t have any choice but to accept it.”

How right she is. What is lost by not being there is the ability to direct your own focus. But what is more, in this same point, the novel came full circle for me here as I considered Tyler’s plot structure and the aforementioned importance of understanding how our collective but unique points of view are always at play, intersecting the story.

Even if it can never be fully possible to see the world through someone else’s lens, it is certainly important to try, or at a minimum, to be just a little bit more aware.