This is a novel about intercultural adoption and what it reveals about cultures and relationships. But to sum it up thus is to collapse the many dimensions and insights of the book into a glib sales pitch. Two families meet at the delivery of their new babies. Because these babies are Korean adoptees, the moment in Baltimore Airport is public and shared, and begins a bond between the Yazdans and the Donaldson-Dickinsons that is the core of the book.
Like most of Anne Tyler’s books, this one is well-observed, the characters are inconsistent in the way that real people are, which makes them believable, and the details that tell the story are small, convincing ones. Food is a recurrent theme, not just the dishes that both families prepare for the annual ‘Arrival Day’ party, but even the words people use for simple dishes, and how they are pronounced: ‘polo’ or ‘rice’? The word chosen, of course, reveals as much abut the listener as the speaker.
The Yazdans are Iranian immigrants, though both Sami and Ziba were raised in America and Sami’s mother Maryam has not been back to Iran for years. To Sami and Ziba’s eyes, the Donaldsons are the all-American family which they aspire to be, and Maryam observes their subtle (and not-so-subtle) emulation of Brad and Bitsy with wry scepticism.
But with gentle humour, Tyler draws out the ironies and complexities of the characters’ relationships with their own, as well as each others’ cultures. Sami loves to deride Americans at Iranian gatherings, relying on their shared experience as immigrants. He makes jokes about Americans’ willingness to sue each other, their unwillingness to discuss money, and the unwritten rules that underlie their supposed tolerance. But he does so in English as, born and raised in Baltimore, he always refused to speak Farsi.
The Donaldsons themselves, far from being boorish cultural imperialists, are most typically American in their desperation to apologise for cultural insensitivity. Their Korean daughter keeps the name Jin-Ho, while Sami and Ziba call their child Susan. Bitsy Donaldson goes to great efforts to prepare Iranian dishes, while Ziba turns to sushi for more sophisticated entertaining.
There’s much more here than a comedy of manners. The outside world makes its bigger conflicts felt in small but immediate ways. After 11 September 2001, an Iranian cousin is held up by security on a journey from his home in Canada. Maryam knows that the Iran she remembers from her teenage years no longer exists.
And on more intimate levels, Tyler can use small details to big emotional effect, as the book deals with loss as well as the arrival of new children. ‘Why, this is just unbearable,’ thinks a character mourning a dead partner, ‘I should have been allowed to practice on somebody less important first. I don’t know how to do this.’
Perhaps that is what makes Tyler’s characters so real. Though they often sense that something is expected of them, they seldom know what it is or how to deliver it. Bitsy tries to direct the important moments of her life, organising parties to mark the occasion, or to control in some way the emotional impact on her family and herself. Of course, she can’t control things, and like everyone she has to cope with the terrible as well as the joyful sides of life.
At first, we too laugh at Bitsy and her desperation to make everything right. We empathise with Maryam, who resists joining in on Bitsy’s terms, and refuses to play the exotic Persian. But like any reader, don’t we also want a happy ending? When the characters rebel against our own hopes, it’s hard to accept that real people sometimes don’t want to fit into their allotted roles.
And, in the end, the book asks the question – who allots the roles we feel expected to play? How much can we blame culture, our own or other people’s, for what we do or refuse to do? There’s a revealing scene between Maryam and her Turkish friend Kari, discussing how to deflect unwanted male interest. ‘I tell them my culture forbids it,’ says Kari, relying on her suitors’ ignorance of Turkish customs. She even jokes that Maryam could always take up wearing a veil.
At times, Tyler seems to slide towards Bitsy’s weakness for setting up grand set-piece occasions, almost as if she has one eye on the film of the book. The epic structure, returning to the annual Arrival Day parties to mark the two families’ progress, sometimes lacks drive when the characters’ own reluctance to engage can make them less engaging to the reader. But these are minor complaints.
Digging to America does just what a novel should. It uses the writer’s imagination to take us inside the lives of people unlike ourselves, and teaches us more about our own. It has the rare gift of letting us laugh at characters while feeling empathy for them, with sharp flashes of pain at unexpected moments. But don’t expect any easy guide to multicultural life. This book, like life, has more questions than answers.