It is fitting that I finished Digging to America, by Anne Tyler, on July 4th, as it is a book about immigration, assimilation, and what it means to be American.
The book opens one August evening in a Baltimore airport as two families meet their adopted Korean daughters for the first time. One family – the Dickinson-Donaldsons – is American by birth, a large brood of WASPy relatives with several siblings and grandchildren. The other family is made up of an Iranian-American couple, Sami and Ziba, and Sami’s Iranian-born immigrant mother Maryam.
The book chronicles the next 6 years or so of these two families’ lives and their regular interactions with each other, as they become close friends and meet annually for such events as the Arrival Party (which commemorates the date the girls came to America), the Iranian New Year, and an annual leaf-raking event. Initially, the book focuses most on the relationship between Ziba and Bitsy (the mom in the Dickinson-Donaldson couple) and on their different child-raising styles. Bitsy is the type of mother who buys organic, dresses her daughter in Korean attire on Arrival Day, and frowns on mothers working outside the home. Ziba is at once more traditional and more modern (she works two days a week) and is perenially insecure whenever Bitsy makes her grand pronouncements about motherhood.
At first, I was disappointed in the book because of its focus on the relationship between these two women. I found it relatively obvious and not very well-explored, and I was frustrated by Ziba’s lack of confidence and the hold Bitsy had over her. Yet just as I was losing interest in the book, Tyler expanded the story to include multiple other viewpoints – Sami’s, Maryam’s, Bitsy’s father’s, and even, eventually, one of the two Korean daughters. The scope of the book widened to include these various characters’ feelings about being American, and also being different, and how they viewed their “otherness”.
And of course the story is told in Tyler’s gentle, observant prose. She has a keen eye for detail and always has empathy for each of her characters. There are no villains here; everyone’s actions and personalities become soft shades of gray.
But I still didn’t love this book. Tyler spends so much time setting up scenes in painstaking detail that I kept expecting more to happen. Instead, the rhythms of domesticity, so well-narrated, became almost boring. Conflicts were resolved so quickly and with such little drama that they were forgettable. I did get a rich sense of each of these characters, but I wanted more from them, about them. I felt like Tyler took a large net and simply skimmed the surface of a pool when she wrote this book – what resulted was a very rich depiction of, ultimately, a shallow layer of life.
It may also have been because I read Digging to America after finishing The Big Girls, which is a little like turning on 7th Heaven after watching a Sopranos marathon.
There are other Anne Tyler books that I enjoyed more than this one – Ladder of Years, for example. I’d opt for that over Digging to America if you’re in a Tyler mood.
Next up, Iranian Week continues with The Septembers of Shiraz.