We are all foreigners here: That's the message underlying Anne Tyler's new novel, "Digging to America,"
On the surface it may seem a strange note from a writer whose work is so deeply rooted in place. Tyler, who grew up in Raleigh, populated such early novels as "If Morning Ever Comes" and "The Tin Can Tree" with small-town 1960s North Carolinians. When she moved to Baltimore in the mid-1960s, that city became her muse.
Yet Tyler's novels have always been concerned with the paradoxes of place, the ways we can feel like outsiders in our own homes and communities. "Digging to America" explores these issues through a global framework, asking: How can relationships succeed when differences in customs, language and ethnicity pile atop the usual baggage?
Indeed, the world has changed since Tyler graduated from Broughton High School and Duke University, and a headline-fresh, global quality inhabits her 17th novel, as contemporary as immigrant-staffed convenience stores and rainbow parades on Los Angeles streets.
"Digging to America" revolves around two families who meet at the Baltimore airport while awaiting the arrival of Korean orphans.
Bitsy and Brad Donaldson, the adoptive parents of Jin-Ho, are a determinedly multicultural Anglo couple who want their child to hang on to her cultural roots.
Sami and Ziba Yadzan, whose background is Iranian, rename their child Susan. She grows up in All-American style, wearing tiny blue jeans as an infant and spurning vegetables.
To forge more links to Jin-Ho's heritage, the Donaldsons maintain contact with the Yazdans after that first brief airport meeting. They create a holiday, Arrival Day, to commemorate the girls' arrival in the United States; its annual celebration helps structure the novel. As the story evolves, two of Tyler's trademark extended families reach out to each other, in turns building bridges and falling into cultural chasms.
Tyler's characters, as ever, are richly detailed as a Dürer print. Even relatively minor players, such as Ziba's parents, the Hakimis, emerge as individuals, coming to an Arrival Day party "beaming in stiff, dark clothes. Mrs. Hakimi mutely held out a huge, extravagantly wrapped gift, contrary to all instructions."
Even so, the cast falls into a pattern, each person trying to fit in a world that's increasingly full of incomprehensible strangers. Tyler, who was married to the Iranian psychiatrist Taghi Modaressi until his death in 1997, knows this equation from within and chalks it up with behind-the-beat humor and an accomplished eye.
The author, who turns 65 this year, has often written of strong older women, but she adds another dimension to her work with the character of Sami Yazdan's mother, Maryam. A vibrant, thoughtful person who becomes Susan's adoptive grandmother, she embodies the book's dilemma. Maryam, dignified and nostalgic for her late husband, seems nearly lost amid her own family's excesses and the Donaldsons' heartiness.
Her situation comes to a head when Dave Dickinson, Bitsy's dad, loses his wife to cancer and eventually sets his sights on Maryam, to her initial dismay.
There's much more to delight the reader of this finely imagined, unshowily great piece of work. There's an ever-expanding cast of Iranian relatives -- right out to double first cousins -- who eat, argue and reminisce about their home country in grand style. Bitsy pushes the limits by adopting another orphan. The girls grow up, facing American traumas from being weaned from a pacifier to dealing with parents who don't get it.
" 'Why, maybe even your mothers go way back,' Bitsy says to the older girls. " 'Maybe your biological mothers were best girlfriends in Korea.'
"Jin-Ho was very careful not to let her eyes meet Susan's."
But it is within the waves and ebbs of Maryam and Dave's relationship that all the novel's questions rise to the surface: How can Maryam make a life with the very American Dave when she feels estranged not only from people in this country, but also from other Iranian expatriates? Where is her home and what does it mean to be an American woman today?
"Wasn't the real culture clash between the sexes?" Maryam asks.
Tyler doesn't boil down these times of ethnicity and assimilation, but brings their complicated benefits and roadblocks into focus through characters' lives.
Just as Tyler caught the restlessness of a slower, more rooted North Carolina in the 1960s, she offers in "Digging to America" a tougher look at the way we are alienated now: It's as hard to relate to "people like us" as to people from the globe's other side.
(Thomas Goldsmith covers generational change for The News & Observer.)