Is there such a thing as a true American?
Anne Tyler's new novel cleverly critiques US culture by contrasting the lives of two adoptive families.
Anne Tyler's 17th novel has a timeliness that is unusual for her. In previous books, such as "Breathing Lessons" and "Back When We Were Grownups," she explored the tug between domesticity and freedom, mainly in quirky households in Baltimore, Md. One of her focuses, usually treated with wry humor, is what she has called "day-to-day endurance."
In Digging to America, Tyler considers what it is to feel like a foreigner in America, and what it is to be (or become) American. The novel concerns two families who meet as they pick up adopted Korean babies at the Baltimore airport in 1997. The Donaldsons are all-American, the Yazdans originally from Iran. Over the next six years, their lives intertwine in unexpected ways. At a time when the US is convulsed with questions about immigrant rights and relations with Iran, this book takes on heightened political relevance.
It is unclear whether this signals a new direction for Tyler. Her last novel, "An Amateur Marriage," tracked an unhappy union over 60 years and examined some of the striking changes in postwar American culture. "Digging to America" also takes a broad look at US culture today. Themes of assimilation, foreignness, and Iranian culture clearly resonate for Tyler, married for 34 years to an Iranian-born psychiatrist.
Maryam Yazdan, baby Susan's grandmother, is a wonderfully realized character at the center of the novel. She is an opinionated but sympathetic snob who strives not to offend her Iranian-born daughter-in-law. Maryam, who came to Baltimore as a 19-year-old bride, has been widowed for nearly 20 years and has lived in the US for almost 40 years when her son Sami and his wife Ziba adopt Susan - but she still feels like an outsider. Tyler, widowed in 1997, writes knowingly about the trade-offs of living alone. Maryam, independent and calm, enjoys her tidy, uncluttered life; she also recognizes that she has become increasingly judgmental and asocial.
Maryam is especially critical of Americans. Tyler notes incisively, "She had not been one of those Iranians who viewed America as the Promised Land. To her and her university friends, the US was the great disappointer," the nation that championed democracy yet backed the Shah.
Maryam finds Americans overwhelming in their energy and bluster. She is tired of being asked whether her family "had run into any unpleasantness during the Iranian hostage crisis" or after 9/11 (they had). Her resentment extends, rather unreasonably, to American interest in her culture: "Why should they [the Yazdans] have to put on these ethnic demonstrations? Let the Donaldsons go to the Smithsonian for that! she thought peevishly."
Although her son, Sami, was born in the US, he, too, spins riffs mocking Americans. Tyler softens the Yazdans' criticisms of Americans with the irony that they are also outsiders in their native Iranian culture. As Maryam comes to realize, "She had never felt at home in her own country or anywhere else."
The relationship between overbearing, but well-meaning, politically correct Bitsy Dickinson-Donaldson and glamorous but insecure Ziba yields a rich crop of Tyler's trademark sly social commentary. Bitsy has a knack for making Ziba feel bad, whether about feeding Susan lactose-laden milk or leaving her two days a week (with Maryam!) while she works. Unlike the Yazdans, the Donaldsons call their daughter by her given name, Jin-Ho, dress her in Korean clothes, and opt for public school.
Bitsy loves to create traditions, most notably the annual Arrival Day party, complete with a ritual screening of the video of the girls arriving at the airport. The families trade off hosting these extravaganzas, at which Maryam is thrown together with Bitsy's widowed, overly friendly father.
In "Digging to America," Anne Tyler gives America's multicultural melting pot a good stir. Once again, this wise and warm-hearted author delves beneath the surface of ordinary Americans to find that there are no ordinary Americans.
• Heller McAlpin is a writer in New York.