Normally, Agatha Christie is my most-read author almost every year but it’s been a while since I picked up one of her books. So, it’s possible that Anne Tyler could take the title this year. I’ve been reading a few of her novels recently and would be very happy to read more over December. Unfortunately, I think I’ve exhausted my library’s supply of them. Or nearly. There’s still A Spool of Blue Thread but that feels to epic an undertaking for this late in the year. Maybe it’s a 2023 kind of book? I’ve been contemplating spending most of next year tackling some of the longer books that I’ve been putting off, so that would work. Of course, as most of my reads have tended to be around 250 pages then longer doesn’t really mean long. I need to get back into the habit of reading books of over 300 pages because I’m so bad at it. At least I have audiobooks to help me, which is how I listened to my latest Anne Tyler novel.
Celestial Navigation is a pretty classic Anne Tyler novel. It’s the story of seemingly unremarkable people that is told in a way to highlight how noteworthy their lives are. Her strength as a writer is to create interesting and unique characters that also feel real. Her stories tend to focus on outsiders who unashamedly live their lives against the grain. Although, they rarely see themselves as that different. Tyler understands human nature and relationships and it really makes a big difference. You like her characters even when they are doing frustrating things. You want them to succeed and are championing them throughout the story. The main characters of Celestial Navigation are no different.
Jeremy Pauling doesn’t like to leave his house. He had previously lived with his mother and created pieces of art in his studio. The only people he regularly had contact with were the boarders who rented rooms in his mother’s house. His life is by no means perfect but he gets by. At least, he does until his mother dies and a new tenant, Mary Tell, moves in. Jeremy’s life is turned upside down. Jeremy doesn’t have a good grasp of normal social interaction and doesn’t always make the right choices. He lives inside his own bubble and is too preoccupied with his artistic endeavours. Yet, he falls in love with Mary and the two attempt to build a life together. Will the pair be able to overcome Jeremey’s lifestyle and make their family work?
This is one of those bittersweet stories that just draws you in from the start. Jeremy is such a great character and I instantly warmed to him. It is not an opinion shared by everyone, including his oldest sister. However, most people treat him sympathetically. Jeremy has some of the traits commonly associated with autism and is left bereft when his mother dies. He is unable to process the event and do what needs to be done. He is so engrossed in his work that he doesn’t even know when his boarders pay their rent. So, it is a huge shock to him when he realises that he is in love with Mary. Even more of a shock when he asks her to marry him. Mary is a beautiful young woman and Jeremy is barely able to look her in the face. Yet the pair somehow come together.
Mary and Jeremy have the makings of a really cute mismatched couple. They are both sweet and really care for each other. However, their relationship is full of complications. Their different natures don’t automatically work in harmony and they both have to try really hard to make it work. Celestial Navigation is one of those frustrating books where you have to sit back and watch people make mistakes. Mary and Jeremy aren’t great at communicating, which pushes them further apart. This isn’t a romanticised view of love but a realistic portrait. These are people who don’t do everything right or act like the perfect partner. That is what makes them so engaging. You want the pair to stay together but you also can’t see how that can ever happen.
I won’t say that this is the best example of Anne Tyler’s writing. She’s written stronger books with more depth to the story. However, that’s not to say it isn’t a good book. Her works are far superior to a lot of novels out there. Her writing is effortless and her characters have a lot of dimensions. She makes some interesting decisions in relation to form and structure that give the simple story a bit of added texture. We hear from multiple perspectives and each has a unique voice. This isn’t the most Anne Tyler novel out there but there is enough of her here to make it work. If you’re interested in character studies that are a little depressing at times then this is a must-read. I’m very glad I read it.