ANNE TYLER (full review, Sleeping Arrangements, Baltimore Sun)

 

With some books, you feel compelled to check and recheck the author’s photograph when you’re reading.  Who is this person? You want to know. Who on earth created this?

 

With “Sleeping Arrangements” a childhood memoir that reads like a novel -- you’ll study not only the photo of the author (a New York novelist and playwright) but the snippets of old snapshots that decorate the dust cover.  These show a bespectacled sweet-faced man in an ill-fitting suit; a second, strikingly handsome man in a pith helmet and swashbuckling trench coat; and – a dark-haired, appealing little girl.

   That little girl is called Lily.  The two men are her bachelor uncles, Gabe and Len.  When Lily is 8, her mother, Rosie, suddenly dies.  Lily’s father has been absent all her life – away at war, according to Rosie. (You can imagine Lily’s surprise when she discovers the war is long over.)  So it’s up to the uncles, inexperienced though they are, to move into Lily’s Bronx apartment and attempt her upbringing.

                The section dealing with Rosie’s death makes almost unbearably sad reading.  When the uncles who are Jewish, announce that they are sitting shiva.  Lily hears it as “sitting shiver” and finds the expression apt; she is literally quaking with grief.  It is weeks before she is able to acknowledge that Rosie is never coming back.

                But “Sleeping Arrangements” like life itself, tosses an abundance of humor in with the pathos.  In fact, the book grows downright hilarious as the uncles clumsily concoct their own version of a normal household routine. Their laundry methods, their interior decorating theories, even their system for bathing Lily (a great-aunt is summoned from across town) are described with affectionate irony.  To Lily, who loves them, they can do no wrong but when the school authorities announce a visit of inspection, she suddenly sees the apartment from a new angle:

                “Why does our dog have her own room (the junior bedroom) and I don’t? Why don’t we have curtains? The light glares in on us.  We move around as if on display, as in a diorama of primitive life in the Museum of Natural History…I take Clorox and wipe at the fingerprints that surround every light switch.  Why, I wonder as I wipe, were we clawing at these light switches.  It looks as if coal miners were trying to escape.”

                No wonder we keep consulting these snapshots on the cover! So this is Len, we say – the self-styled mystery man whose luggage of choice is a manila envelope.  So this is Gabe, who answers the accusation that his head is in the clouds with –“Oh, thank you, I try.”

                In counterpoint to the uncles’ domestic comedy is Lily’s other life, out in the streets among her peers.  Here, she leaps rooftops, plays elaborate sexual games and courts disaster in a park full of child molesters.  All very unsettling for us, the readers, but the final effect is to underscore Lily’s essential aloneness. No matter how much her mother loved her, she never knew about Lily’s sad little time-passing rituals as she endured that scary period between the end of the school day and the end of Rosie’s work day.  No matter how much her uncles love her, they have no idea of Lily’s perilous existence out in the world.

 

 

“Sleeping Arrangements is so funny and quirky, and it’s written with such a deft touch, that at first you may not recognize its underlying seriousness.  Lily, negotiating her private dangers, demonstrates the secret grief and terrors of children everywhere.

And the uncles, rigging their makeshift household, have something to teach us about that fascinating subculture that is family, with all its rites and shibboleths.  Laugh all you like while you’re reading, but once you’ve finished, you may find yourself sitting very quietly for a while, mulling over the marvels of this truly wonderful book.”

Anne Tyler