No 424 Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler

I have quite a few Anne Tyler’s in the 746 and was given just the nudge to pick one up by Liz who is hosting an Anne Tyler Re-read project this year. You can find more details of her plans here.

This month the chosen book is Earthly Possessions from 1977.

Earthly Possessions is the story of Charlotte Emory, who is about to walk away from a dour marriage to her a preacher-husband. Her life has become too cluttered and her home is stuffed with her husband’s variously afflicted brothers, a daughter who will only answer to the name of her imaginary friend, a vaguely adopted son called Jiggs, , a house full of ‘sinners’ from her husband’s congregation, and two families worth of unbearable clutter. She has been trying to get rid of the clutter now for years, leaving furniture out in the trash in an attempt to make some space for herself, but it hasn’t worked.

My life has been a history of casting off encumbrances, paring down to the bare essentials, stripping for the journey. Possessions make me anxious.

The novel opens on the day Charlotte she goes to the bank to withdraw money to fund her escape, but she finds herself involved in a botched holdup, and is taken hostage. Escape hasn’t come in quite the way she anticipated. What follows is a forced road trip to Florida with pathetic petty criminal Jake and a very different type of escape than Charlotte was planning.

As kidnappings go, and this is not Charlotte’s first, it is relatively uneventful. Jake Simms Jr.- escaped convict and demolition-derby driver – is a young man so inept and so without a plan as to almost be a danger to himself. Like Charlotte, life has been closing in on Jake too, his young girlfriend is in a home for unwed mothers and he feels he has to rescue her. So, Charlotte and Jake take, first a train and then a stolen car and make their way to Florida.

The passivity that has kept Charlotte stuck all her life strikes here to. She is a thinker, not a doer and as she travels along with Jake, she looks back over her life and wonders how she came to be where she is.

I felt like something dragged on a string behind a forgetful child. I couldn’t understand how we’d arrived so soon at the same muddy, tangled, flawed relationship that I had with everyone else.

On the road, in flashbacks, the reader is introduced to so many characters and given so much detail about Charlotte’s life that it is almost amazing that this book isn’t three times its length. Tyler is incredibly gifted at capturing characters deftly and presenting them always with warmth and dignity.

Anne Tyler

Earthly Possessions is a humane portrayal of a woman who is drowning in family, but can find no place of her own. Since childhood she has believed that she was swapped at birth. She lives in her parents house and has taken over her father’s photography business on his death. Her husband is more concerned with his congregation and the Emory boys who used to play across the road from Charlotte are now all grown men living in her house.

What Charlotte and Jake share is a common, impractical desire for freedom from the entanglements of life and Charlotte realizes that Jake is, like herself, “criss-crossed by strings of love and need and worry.” As they bicker and fight and share the driving across America, their relationship, like so many other unexpected relationships in Charlotte’s life, becomes ordinary.

Then I straightened and saw the greenish light that filtered through the windows – a kind of light they don’t have any place else. Oh, I’ve never had the knack of knowing I was happy right while the happiness was going on.

At the heart of Earthy Possessions is a relatively painful story. Charlotte fails to understand fully and to be understood by those she loves, but this unenviable situation is counterbalanced by Tyler’s witty, carefully detailed style.

The choice that Charlotte makes at the end of the novel may be divisive for some readers, but to my mind this is a novel focused more on characters than plot. Tyler’s chosen territory is the most difficult to pull off because it relies on the emotional responses of characters that are as real and as troubled, as flawed and as normal as ordinary people tend to be. 

Earthy Possessions is shot through with humour and kindness and celebrates the eccentric mannerisms that make up each individual. Her dialogue is authentic, and she knows the delicate balance between drama and acceptance. Her gift is to create characters who are not necessarily good, but are striving for goodness.

I’ll be reading The Accidental Tourist in May as part of Liz’s challenge.

READ ON: I-bOOK
NUMBER READ: 322
NUMBER REMAINING: 424

The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

32 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Here are some lines I wrote about Ann Tyler last May:

    “In a review of Anne Tyler’s early novel ‘Searching for Caleb’ for the New Yorker in 1975, John Updike wrote “Funny and lyric and true, exquisite in its details and ambitious in its design…This writer is not merely good, she is wickedly good.” Updike took an interest in Tyler’s work and reviewed her next four novels as well, thus launching Tyler’s career into the stratosphere where she has remained since then. The English novelist Nick Hornby has stated that his ambition was to be a male Anne Tyler.

    I have read nearly every one of Anne Tyler’s twenty-three novels, even the first four which she doesn’t like anymore but which I thought were very good. All of her novels take place in Baltimore, and that city has Anne Tyler bus tours for tourists except during the lock down. Tyler’s subject has always been the inexplicable personal mysteries in our ordinary routine day-to-day lives. She finds the fascination in even the most mundane of lives. Her novels of ordinary people connect with us readers on a visceral level.”

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  2. I waited until I’d finished the book and scheduled my review to come read yours. I found this to be a real standout from Tyler and I agree that the characters and emotional connections are explored so thoroughly, and in (in my copy, at least) just 200 pages! The Accidental Tourist is a great one, too.

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  3. I’ve never read any of Anne Tyler’s books and never felt a need to, but this review has made me curious. You’re a bad influence, Cathy! I love the film version of The Accidental Tourist, so I’ll look out for your review of the book.

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  4. Hi Cathy – I have always liked Anne Tyler’s books, but I have not read Earthly Possessions. I read The Accidental Tourist (and watched the movie) about 30 years ago. Thanks for the review and for following me here! (Book Club Mom 🙂 )

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  5. I’ve not read much Anne Tyler so I gave this one a go. I thought it was a very understanding portrait of a family, and bringing someone to life from a place in the shadows. Mindy and Jake provided a good contrast in tone.

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  6. What a great review. You managed to capture the essentials of the novels. I agree with you and think that most of Anne Tyler’s novels are character driven. And what characters she creates. Not much happens, but still, something always happens. I think this is so far one of my favourite books by her. I also loved ‘The Clock Winder’. I think Charlotte and Elizabeth are the same kind of persons. Drawing people to them, like the have a special aura around them.

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