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Back When We Were Grownups
by Anne Tyler




Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler

About the Book

An irresistible new novel from Anne Tyler. At 53, Rebecca Davitch- mistress of The Open Arms, a crumbling 19th-century row house in Baltimore where giving parties is the family business-suddenly asks herself whether she has turned into the wrong person. Is she really this natural-born celebrator; joyous and outgiving?

Certainly that's how Joe Davitch saw her 30-some years ago. And that's why this large-spirited older man, a divorce with three little girls, swept her into his orbit. Before she knew it, she was embracing his extended family (plus a child of their own) and hosting endless parties in the ornate, high-ceilinged rooms where people paid to celebrate their family occasions in style.

But can Beck (as she is known to the Davitch clan) really recover the person she has left behind? A question that touches us all-and one that Anne Tyler explores with characteristic humor and wisdom in a novel one wishes would never end.

About the Author

Birth—October 25, 1941

Where—Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Education—B.A., Duke University


  • Pulitzer Prize, 1989
  • National Book Critics Circle Award, 1986
  • PEN/Faulkner Award, 1983

Currently—lives in Baltimore, Maryland

Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis in 1941 but 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. This is Anne Tyler's fifteenth novel; she has written seventeen (as of 2007). Her eleventh book, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore.

Anne Tyler has had a very active imagination all her life. When she was a young girl, she would spend an hour or two after being put to bed every night fantasizing that she was a doctor. She imagined conversations with patients, and pictured their lives as she did so, considering both their illnesses and the intricacies of their backgrounds. She constructed little mental plays around these characters that she would whisper to herself in the dark -- much to the chagrin of her brother, with whom she shared a room. "[H]e used to call out to our parents, 'Anne's whispering again!'" she once told Barnes & As much as she may have vexed her brother, she also believes that these fantasies helped her to develop into the beloved, award-winning novelist she is today.

Tyler's work is characterized by a meticulous attention to detail, a genuine love of her characters, and a quirky sense of humor. Her public persona is characterized by its own quirks, as well. She refuses to grant face-to-face interviews. She has never publicly read from any of her books. She does not do book signings or tours. All of this has lent a certain mystique to her novels, although Tyler has said that her reluctance to become a public figure status is actually the result of simple shyness, not to mention her desire for her writing to speak for itself. Fortunately, Anne Tyler's work speaks with a clear, fully-realized voice that does not require unnecessary elucidation by the writer.

Tyler published her first novel If Morning Ever Comes in 1964, and that singular voice was already in place. This astute debut that tracks the self-realization of a young man named Ben Joe Hawkins displayed Tyler's characteristic wit and gentle eccentricity right off the bat. Harper's declared the novel "a triumph," and Tyler was on her way to creating an impressive catalog of novels chronicling the every day hopes, fears, dreams, failures, and victories of small-town Americans. Having come of age, herself, in rural North Carolina, Tyler had particular insight into the lives of her characters. Each novel was a little shimmering gem, winning her a devoted following and public accolades that more than compensated for her refusal to appear in public. Her novel Earthly Possessions, the story of a housewife who is taken hostage by a young man during a bank robbery, was released the same year she won an award for "literary excellence and promise of important  work to come" from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The book also went on to become a television movie starring Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorff in 1999.

However, the most well-known adaptation of one of Tyler's novels arrived more than a decade earlier when The Accidental Tourist was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Geena Davis and William Hurt. Consequently, The Accidental Tourist is viewed by some as Tyler's signature novel, covering many of the writer's favorite themes: the push and pull of marriage, the appearance of a romantic eccentric, personal tragedy, and the quest to escape from the drudgery of routine. The Accidental Tourist won the National Book Critics Circle Award and hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller list.

Three years later, Tyler received the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons, which further explored themes of marriage and self-examination. Despite having won the prestigious Pulitzer, Tyler still refused to allow herself to be drawn into the spotlight. Quietly, contemplatively, she chose to continue publishing a sequence of uniformly fine novels, including Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, and The Amateur Marriage.

A more recent novel, Digging to America (2006) reexamines many of her chief obsessions, while also possibly drawing upon a personal triumph—her marriage to Iranian psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Mohammad Modarressi—and the tragedy of his death in 1997. The novel follows the relationship between two families, the Iranian Yazdans and the all-American Donaldsons, as they become closer and closer and affect each other deeper and deeper over a succession of years. Digging to America is arguably Tyler's deepest and most profound work to date. It also delivers more of her peculiar brand of humor, which will surely please her longtime fans, thrilled that she continues spinning tales with the trademark attention to character that has distinguished her stories ever since she was a little girl, whispering to herself in the dark. Tyler may have decided to remain in the dark and out of the public eye, but the stories she has to tell have shed more than their share of light on the lives of her readers.

Discussion Questions

  1. It is upon Peter's second disappearance during the picnic that Rebecca first thinks: "How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who's not really me?" (p. 20, lines 33-34). Why does Rebecca's "identity crisis" begin at this particular moment in her life?
  2. Did Rebecca "choose" her life, or is her life just an example of Poppy's observation: "Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you've got"? (p. 252, lines 1-2). Do people choose their identities, or do they just "end up" the way they are?
  3. Rebecca asks her client: "Mrs. Border, have you ever stopped to consider what a marvelous purpose a party serves?" (p. 38, lines 17-18). How does Rebecca answer her own question? Would she answer it differently at the end of the novel?
  4. What is the significance of Rebecca's "Freudian slip"--if it can be called that——when she tells Zeb that she is a "superficial" woman, when she really means "superfluous"? Is Rebecca either "superfluous" or "superficial"? Is superfluous a word one could use to describe any character in the book?
  5. "[Zeb] had a theory that Min Foo's many marriages were her way of trying on other lives" (p. 29, lines 34-35). Is this the same as what Rebecca is trying to do? Is this a universal fantasy that Rebecca is living out? What might be Tyler's opinion of one trying to "go back to take the other fork in the road" or "trying on different lives"? What other examples can you find in Back When We Were Grownups thatprovide different ways to think about or define the concept of identity?
  6. The opening words of the novel, "Once upon a time . . . , " recall the motif used in fables or fairy tales. In what ways does Back When We Were Grownups resemble a fairy tale or contain elements of the fairy tale or fable? Does Back When We Were Grownups have a moral?
  7. Rebecca realizes the irony of the fact that the more she does for her family, the less she is appreciated. "It had occurred to her, often, that the way to win your family's worshipful devotion was to abandon them" (p. 87, lines 17-18). The reader learns a lot about how "Beck" feels about her family—but how does her family feel about her? Does it matter to Rebecca whether her family appreciates her or not? What does the book suggest about how family members treat one another generally in society?
  8. How is marriage portrayed in Back When We Were Grownups? Are there marriages of convenience, or are there examples of marriage where both parties to the marriage are equally "useful" to each other, as Rebecca advises NoNo on her marriage to Barry (p. 246, lines 31-32)? Is Rebecca's advice to NoNo convincing to the reader? To Rebecca herself? Why do marriages fail: Joe and Tina's, Will and Laura's, and Min Foo's first two marriages? 
  9. How would you compare the different types of love explored in the book? With respect to Poppy, Rebecca observes: "Apparently you grow to love whom you're handed" (p. 157, lines 1-2). Is this applicable to the love Rebecca has for any of the other people in her life? In the case of her sons-in-law, Rebecca had promised that she would treat them differently than her mother treated Joe, and "she had kept her promise so faithfully that now she couldn't say for certain whether she truly loved her sons-in-law or merely thought she did" (p. 144, lines 23-25). Is there a practical difference for Rebecca? How do the other characters love Rebecca?
  10. What is the significance of Tyler's ending the tale with Poppy's hundredth birthday party? What is really being celebrated?
  11. Is the ending of Back When We Were Grownups anticlimactic or satisfying? Is the reader mad at or frustrated with Rebecca, or proud of her? At what point does the reader come to "recognize" the "real" Rebecca?
  12. Can Rebecca be described as a heroine? A martyr? Is she an ordinary or extraordinary woman? When she realizes that she has brought the Davitches her "joyousness . . . [which] she had struggled to acquire . . . Timidly, she experimented with a sneaking sense of achievement. Pride, even" (p. 246, lines 31-36, to p. 247, lines 1-4). Is this her greatest achievement? What are Rebecca's failures?
  13. Is there significance to Rebecca's dream about the boy on the train (p. 21, lines 1-17)? Why does she realize that Peter was the boy on the train at the moment that she does (p. 273, lines 32-33)? Is Peter her chance at creating a new life or identity? Is Rebecca's dream a metaphor for her "identity crisis, " and, if so, what does it tell us about how seriously to take her "identity crisis"?
  14. What does "The Open Arms" symbolize? Is the name of Rebecca's house intended to be ironic? How might the dynamic of the Davitch family be different if their family business were something other than running a party facility out of their home?
  15. How does Tyler develop the characters in her novel? Compare how certain characters, such as Poppy and Rebecca's mother, speak a lot, and others, such as Peter, say very little. How much do we learn about some of the lesser characters by the few words they say in the novel? How is Rebecca's character developed differently than the other characters?
  16. What is the meaning of the title (p. 188, lines 11-17)? What does it mean to be "grownup, " and can Rebecca or any of the other characters be described as "grownups"?
  17. Does the concept of "family" defy definition in Back When We Were Grownups? Might the reader wonder how Rebecca came to be so accepting of all of the assorted people she welcomes easily into her family? Is she rebelling against her own mother's intolerance, or simply filling the void of her lonely childhood?
  18. For Rebecca, "the most memorable of the five senses . . . was the sense of touch" (p. 34, lines 28-29). The sense of taste also figures prominently in the book, invoked by the descriptions of the food served to Rebecca (p. 64, lines 8-9; p. 131; and p. 205) and Biddy's gourmet foods. What does Tyler achieve stylistically by invoking these senses, or any of the other three senses?
  19. How would you characterize the conversations Rebecca has with her grandchildren? What do they reveal about Rebecca? For example: Rebecca tells Merrie about her dream (p. 49, lines 13-14), and she discusses Poppy's birthday party with Peter (p. 117, lines 20-35).
  20. What is the significance of the descriptions of the lives and families of the workmen who frequent The Open Arms? Are they merely humorous interludes, or is their placement in the novel significant to Rebecca's progress in her search for her identity?
  21. Is Tyler's choice of the motives of Robert E. Lee as the topic of Rebecca's college research project intended to be humorous? Ironic? Is Rebecca's realization about Lee's motives analogous to her own selfrecognition, and, if it does invite such comparison, what does that tell the reader about how to view Rebecca's identity crisis? (p. 232, lines 6-23)
  22. How do Tyler's descriptions of Baltimore, the scenery during the drive from Baltimore to Macadam (pp. 127-28), and the town of Church Valley, Virginia (pp. 57-61), affect the atmosphere and mood of the novel? Do they reinforce any themes of the novel? Is Rebecca's life like the once elegant street of Baltimore that "never reverses" (p. 47, line 1)?
  23. What are Will's good qualities? Does the reader sympathize with Will? Like him or dislike him? What happened at the family dinner that made Rebecca "end it" with Will that night (p. 218, lines 6-8)? Is Will in fact the one who was "superfluous"?
  24. In several places, two characters' conversational paths converge. (For example, p. 64, lines 30-31.) Where else does Tyler use this style to convey how people talk to each other— but don't seem to really hear each other? Are these realistic conversations? What does it tell us about the way people communicate?
  25. How does Tyler achieve a balance between the celebratory and the mournful in Back When We Were Grownups? Does one tone dominate the other?
  26. Rebecca frequently feels that she is untrue to her own nature. (For example, p. 183, lines 14-15; p. 69, line 24; and p. 162, lines 25-) Is Rebecca really a "fraud" (p. 39, lines 28-29), or is this a common character trait?
  27. Rebecca explains that she refers to Min Foo as her daughter but still refers to the other girls as stepdaughters because "acquiring" stepdaughters was the most profound change in her life (p. 234, lines 15-27). Are any of the other characters shaped by such profound events in their lives? Is Rebecca's a typical or understandable way people deal with such profound life changes, or does it say something unusual or significant about Rebecca and her own situation?
  28. When Rebecca and Tina discuss Joe's poor driving, Rebecca recalls Joe's bout with depression and the reader glimpses a little crack in the veneer of Rebecca's perfect memories of Joe (p. 97). Dare we think that Joe's death was a suicide like his father's, and, if the thought occurs to us, doesn't it occur to Rebecca too? Might there have been more "bad" memories that Rebecca has blocked out?