Plot summary (with spoilers): Rebecca Davitch is a 53-year-old woman who wakes up one morning only to wonder how she ended up with the life she has. She can’t help feeling that she took a wrong turn somewhere along the line, and should be in a completely different place — literally and metaphorically — right now. As she tries to cope with her hectic daily schedules involving a huge extended family, she has time to reflect on where her life choices have led her and where she might be if she could go back and do things all over again.
The major turning point occurred more than 30 years ago when as a 20-year-old Macadam College student pursuing a history degree, Rebecca meets Joe Davitch. Joe is 33 and has two young daughters from a failed marriage. Somehow, he manages to sweep Rebecca off her feet, despite the fact that she has been in a steady, exclusive relationship with Will Allenby since high school. After just a few short weeks, Rebecca abruptly drops out of school to marry Joe — leaving a stunned Will wondering what the hell happened.
From there, Rebecca slips into the routines of marriage, taking care of Joe’s daughters Biddy and NoNo, and giving birth to her own daughter Min Foo. She also helps Joe run the Open Arms, a catering/party planning business that has been in the Davitch family for a while. Then, tragedy strikes seven years later when Joe is killed in a car crash, leaving a still-young Rebecca to continue on her path by herself.
She does well enough, but, something is not quite right, which is why she starts questioning her choices at age 53. Rebecca even gets to the point where she tracks down Will, now a Macadam professor, to try to rekindle their relationship, thinking that breaking up with him might have been her life’s biggest mistake. But it doesn’t take long for Rebecca to realize that as much as she likes the older Will and enjoys spending time with him, they simply weren’t meant to be in a real relationship together. After all, he’s the kind of guy who eats chili at practically every meal (because it’s the only thing he knows how to cook) and whose idea of an exciting evening is to look up term life insurance rates online to make sure he’s getting the best deal.
Rebecca’s musings continue amidst the crazy happenings of her family’s — Joe’s family, really — lives. As the novel reaches its conclusions, Rebecca slowly learns to accept her place and her life, and to come to terms with where she’s at.
- I like the idea of a middle-aged woman reexamining her life without doing a bunch of wild and crazy things in a vain effort to recapture her youth. Rebecca’s feelings were completely understandable and her follow-up actions were mostly believable.
- The Davitch family was so boring and annoying that I hated all the scenes involving them. They all had stupid names (mentioned above), and were just whiny, self-absorbed, and unrealistic. No wonder Rebecca wondered what the hell her life had come to.
- It seemed like very little actually happened in this book. Most of the scenes involved the family, and just showed what Rebecca’s current life was like. But there wasn’t quite as much introspection as I thought there would be in a novel with this type of premise, which was disappointing.
- Not only were there a lot of family scenes, but these scenes were so looong! The introductory picnic scene, which accomplished little more than Tyler trotting all the characters’ names out, almost made me give up on the book right there. And then Poppy’s birthday party scene simply had me impatiently counting the pages until the end.
Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler is a book that I simply couldn’t get into at all. The protagonist had an interesting problem, but not much was done about it. The fact that Rebecca Davitch was so vanilla and that her family members seemed to be made deliberately “nutty” and “quirky” didn’t make the book any easier to read. I give it just 2 stars out of 5.