Monday, November 26, 2007
Digging to America, by Anne Tyler
Two families wait at the gate in the Baltimore airport for the same flight, which is carrying their newly-adopted Korean babies. One family, fully American, has made an event of it. Everyone is wearing labels ("Mom", "Grandpa") and the family is filling the waiting area, almost forcing out others, making a party of it. The other family is transplanted Iranian and has made no fanfare of the arrival of their new baby.
Bitsy, the American mom, eventually invites Ziba, Iranian mom, to join an invented "arrival" celebration of the two infants, and the two families are thus joined. The differences in the families pricks at the edges of each encounter, with members of both families trying - or not trying - to understand the other. Throughout the book the individuals seem unable to keep from generalizing, the Iranians finding the Americans laughable, crude, at times overbearing, the Americans finding the Iranians stiff, sometimes unresponsive, perhaps "too good" for them.
Ziba's mother-in-law, Maryam, is perhaps the most reluctant Iranian. She was at peace with her widowed existence, her proper life, and she has no need for the sometimes overwhelming assault of well-meaning friends. She is proper and polite, often seeming cold because of her reserve, so she does join the parties because it would be rude to refuse.
Although we get into the minds of almost all of the many characters, ultimately it is Maryam who takes center stage. Through her thoughts and actions we begin to understand how difficult it must be to live in such a foreign culture, unable to join it. She admits to herself, though, that she had differences in Iran as well, and we begin to grasp that it may not be so much the differences in cultures that affects these clans so much as the differences in individuals.
The book is so easy to read that it is easy to miss its complexity, its quiet effects on our thinking. I felt at times that there was too much generalizing but those who read carefully will see that the generalizing came from individuals rather than from Tyler herself.