Book Review – Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

books, reviews

Rating: 5 out of 5.

After I read French Braid earlier this year, I decided that I’d try and read more Anne Tyler books. She’s an author that I haven’t read enough of and it’s time to change that. So, when I discovered a few of her books on my library app, I decided to borrow them. Again, I’ve been listening to audiobooks at work and she’s a great writer for that. Her stories are detailed but don’t require a lot of effort to keep track of the plot. You just get to enjoy gorgeous writing as you perform menial tasks. What could be better?

I’m a big fan of books where very little happens and characters just go about their daily business. Redhead by the Side of the Road isn’t a book that everyone will enjoy because there’s very little action. To some readers, it might feel as if very little is happening. However, it’s an intimate portrait of a man who doesn’t see the world in the same way as everyone else. In Anne Tyler’s life, his ordinary life becomes something noteworthy and engaging. As I said, I love books that delve into the tiny details of somebody’s life and this kind of book plays right into my hands.

Micah Mortimer is in his 40s and very set in his ways. He follows the same routine every day and has set days for cleaning his home. His home being a dingy basement flat where he runs his own computer repair company, Tech Hermit. Michah is in a relationship with a teacher, Cass. He appreciates that she basically keeps to herself and they lead pretty separate lives. However, their relationship is tested when Cass finds out she’s facing eviction. A situation that isn’t helped when a teenage boy turns up on Micah’s doorstep claiming to be his son. Very quickly, Micah’s ordered life starts to unravel.

What I absolutely love about this book is the characterisation. Anne Tyler understands and portrays human existence in such a nuanced way. It never strays into caricature or exaggeration. In fact, she goes out of her way to ensure that we understand these people aren’t really worth our time. Yet, she goes on to show us that even the most ordinary people are worth paying attention to. Micah and Cass are both well-written and deep characters. Both are flawed in their own way but in realistic ways. Their relationship feels natural and true to life. This isn’t the stuff of fairy tales but of two people just trying their best.

There is a definite bittersweet element to this book. Micah once had so much potential and was the first person in his family to go to college. Now he helps old women connect to their wifi and acts as a caretaker for his building. His regimented life is keeping him firmly in his comfort zone and extends to his relationship with Cass. They had a system and he doesn’t want that to change. Though it might not seem like it to outsiders, Micah is happy with his life. Or, at least, he’s not unhappy with it. He sees his family as chaotic and can’t understand how they cope. He enjoys living by the rules to the extent that he imagines a traffic god looking down approvingly as he drives.

Micah struggles with understanding emotions. He is not without feelings because he is sympathetic and caring towards his cancer-stricken neighbour. It’s just that he feels as though his viewpoint is correct. He can’t understand why other people make such a fuss about things. Although, the events in the novel force him to re-examine himself. We see him start to rethink his life and slowly realise that he might be ready for something more. Anne Tyler is the kind of writer that thrives in the unremarkable. In stories that show ordinary people wanting to live good lives.

The Redhead at the Side of the Road is another great example of her effortless skills as a writer. She makes it seem as though nothing you read is important but everything is. Events just happen but nothing should be ignored. Her writing lacks pretension and is an absolute joy to read. It could be so easy to write her off but she manages to bring such depth and complexity to her stories.

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