Book Review: Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler

How Do You Find a Good Book to Read?

You don’t need me to tell you Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler is a good book. If you love Anne Tyler, you already know it’s good.

Image result for Searching for Caleb

But consider a new reader, someone unfamiliar with this author, with only an hour in a three-story, four-block-long sea of books called Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. searching to find a book to read on the plane. If you only had time to read the first sentence, would you buy this book?

“The fortune teller and her grandfather went to New York City on an Amtrak train, racketing along with their identical, peaky white faces set due north.”

I loved it. First of all, starting with occupations and relationships peaks my attention. The occupation is not common and quirky. A young woman and her grandfather is also an interesting combination. Where are mom, grandma, and the rest of the family?

Instead of traveling in a wagon, or even a car, they racketed along to New York City by Amtrak. The mode of transportation seems odd for a fortune teller, at least an old time one, as does the destination. They sat side by side instead of across from each other at a little table, and if they talked, they didn’t look at each other – ever. “Their identical peaky white faces set due north.”

By the way, what young woman would want to have an identical face to her grandfather? I don’t care if her grandfather is George Clooney.

I’m prejudiced, but a million years ago, when I grew up in Portland, Oregon, there were a lot of fortune tellers, most of whom were gypsies, and they traveled with their children, usually to my mother’s fabric store to buy yards and yards of fabric. They were tan-skinned, not in the least peaky and wore long bright skirts.

Based on the curiosity that one sentence whetted, stimulated, and aroused, I bought the book, felt anxious throughout mostly because I can’t figure out how she thinks of such amazing ways to use words. I’ve been wracking/racking (both are correct) my brain to copy her style without even fully understanding what it means to wrack my brain. She makes up her own clichés.

More Quotes

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

“…their breaths trailing out of their mouths in white tatters.”

It must have been chilly. “Her gritty bare feet whispered on the floor and her bathrobe sash galloped behind.”

First of all, why did she have gritty bare feet? She’s either getting into or out of bed, right? Secondly, she’s in a hurry, she doesn’t bother to tie her sash, and it is galloping behind her. Third, her bare feet whisper, while my thud. She must be light and works hard not to make a noise as she walks. Is she sneaking up on someone? Is the person she lives with a light sleeper or very grouchy that she doesn’t want to disturb him? Only five percent into the book, this sentence disturbed and thrilled me at the same time. I felt a vague sense of worry or pity for this peaky white young woman with tattery breath.

“Although there was no second floor the dormer window of some attic or storage room bulged out of the roof like an eyelid.”

If you’re an author, do you struggle as you describe buildings? Tyler makes body parts work hard.

“waited for her behind four pairs of blue, blue eyes.”

I didn’t note the reason for the four pairs of blue eyes, but what a better way to say that people were looking at her. Not only that, how do you get four people who all have blue eyes together in one room? That’s pretty unusual. My family of four all had blue eyes – it’s a recessive gene, but getting four pair of them together at the same time all looking at one person, that’s a little ominous.

“the bales of ancient, curly-edged magazines, zipper bags bursting with unfashionable clothes, cardboard boxes marked Clippings, Used Wrapping Paper, Photos, Empty Bottles.”

The fortune teller and her husband were moving and this is what they packed AND MARKED! How funny! We carefully pack and label our valuables, and sometimes stick other stuff in boxes and label them Kitchen, or Bathroom. I don’t know what you do. This also reminded me of my mother-in-law and my grandmother’s homes. They went through the Great Depression. My grandmother moved tons and tons of rolls toilet paper, spices and bed sheets, all white, many with holes in them from having gone through the ringer washing machine so many times. My mother-in-law saved all her used aluminum foil. 

That’s probably enough to give you the idea that this book is either for you or it isn’t, and I didn’t even get past the ten percent point in the book for you and didn’t include all the quotes I marked.

In a Nutshell

This is a story about a large wealthy family who sticks together more than most families I know, almost to the point of excluding anyone else. Except for those who escaped the family bonds. Caleb was one of those. The Grandfather spent the last years of his life looking for his brother who left home at an early age. His granddaughter and his children helped him in his quest to find the Prodigal Brother. There were some other prodigals, but they never disappeared completely as Caleb did.

Goodreads Highlights

I love Goodreads, by the way, because when you read on Kindle, it keeps track of all the highlights you make. I always keep mine secret because I think my comments might seem shallow. Do you think I should make them visible or not? I’ve added to the comments a little bit here, but not much. Let me know what you think.

Additional Books by Anne Tyler

Have you read other books by Anne Tyler? What do you think of her writing?

I wrote about an accidental vacation we took a few years ago. My husband said it reminded him of The Accidental Tourist. That’s how I first learned about Anne Tyler. I’ve been in love with her writing ever since then.

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler Book Review

A Travel Guidebook for Agoraphobics

Macon the hero of The Accidental Tourist writes travel guidebooks for homebodies, business travelers and the elderly who hate to travel and anyone else who hates being away from home. I think there ought to be a travel guidebook written soon if it is not in stores everywhere. In this hilarious classic best seller, the books sell off the shelf.

travel guidebooks

Since I borrowed and modified Tyler’s title for a series of blog posts, The Accidental VacationThe Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler was probably one of my favorite books of all time. The reader meandered through the laughable drivel in this book to discover the plot hidden among the hilarious conversations and descriptions.

“Maybe you should put on your glasses.”
“Putting on my glasses would help you to see?” …
“Did you see the boy with the motor cycle?
“What boy?”
“He was parked beneath the underpass.”
It’s crazy to ride a motorcycle on a day like today.”

You could predict imminent divorce from the first conversation between this couple. Their conversations floated on planes of their own, passing each other as they traveled across the airwaves, typical of many real conversations. The protagonist inserts many of his own thoughts which are just as inane as his conversations with others.

I found the descriptions compelling also.

“The car drew in around them like a room. … Earlier the air conditioner had been running and now some artificial chill remained, quickly turning dank, carrying with it the smell of mildew.”

I have definitely smelled that in my car, haven’t you?

You can’t help feeling sorry for poor, bumbling Macon as he fends for himself oblivious to how to improve his life. He doesn’t recognize his help for a long time, but like his dog, he eventually learns som new tricks. The unfolding is heartwarming making you laugh and cry sometimes simultaneously.

I would love to clone this book and publish it under my name. Poof, book done!  But now I have to go back and polish my manuscript and try to make it as readable as Anne Tyler made hers.a

Related Posts

Accidental Vacation

Accidental Vacation Chapter Two

Book Review Searching for Caleb

Book Review Homesick Restaurant

Dinner at Homesick Restaurant: Book Review

Book Review Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Homesick Restaurant
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

This award-winner is one of three to be nominated for a Pulitzer Award.

A Functional Book about a Dysfunctional Family

Memory is not particularly linear – it is associative, repetitive, subjective and porous. But the writer needs to convey disorder and dysfunction without making the novel itself disorderly or dysfunctional. Dana Spiotta

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is anything but disorderly. In Anne Tyler’s favorite book, the reader meets a dysfunctional family raised by a single mother, Pearl. The story unfurls like a flag in a gentle breeze, from the perspective of each character in the household, starting and ending with Pearl’s death.

Tyler stated “I’m so attached to the characters, I still miss them, even all these years later. Like the reader, Tyler is “addicted to the sensation of living lives I would not experience in reality.”

Each Character Shares His or Her Perspective

The daughter in the story, Jenny says that “marriage is like a disaster movie; it flings people together and exposes their true characters.” The tornado of Pearl’s struggle to cope with the pressures of raising her children alone trap Cody, Ezra, and Jenny in a never-ending whirlwind. They survive the story in their unique way. Ezra, Anne Tyler’s favorite character, built his life around his dream, the Homesick Restaurant.

In the beginning, a dying Pearl reminisces over her life. The reader meets her lean, rangy love, Beck. The smart young fellow with wavy black hair “paid her compliments that made her uncomfortable till she could get off alone in her room and savor them.” Against her parent’s wishes, she married the man six years her junior. Immediately following their marriage, they moved away from her family. The reader senses her disappointment as the necessary move never allowed her to “enjoy her new status among her girlfriends.”

They moved often. After six years, the couple started building their family. Pearl was thirty-six. Over the ensuing years, Cody, Ezra, and Jenny complicated her life with doctors and school transcripts. In the process, she lost contact with her extended friends and family. Anxiety puckered her forehead. Then Beck left. Pearl felt “she was sinking in at the center…”

Issues that started early seemed to plague the characters throughout the book. Cody tried hard as a child to please his father. He remembered his younger brother Ezra with a touch of jealousy.

“All right Ezra … Just don’t get carried away like Cody here did. …There was no one as clumsy as Ezra. …It seemed his attention had been caught by a cloud formation over to the south. … (Yet, his) arrow (not Cody’s) sped in a straight, swift path, no arc to it at all. As if guided by an invisible thread… It split the length of the arrow that Beck had already jammed in and landed at the center of the bull’s-eye, quivering.”

Pearl and Beck’s children turned out in a way that society would approve, acceptably successful, which pleased Beck. He could not see that under the surface of their successes, their hearts and souls were frazzled and not knit all the way through. Tyler portrays neither Beck nor his wife, Pearl, as evil people. Their behaviors toward each other and their children left scars and scandalized readers. Pearl never quit loving Beck, nor did he stop caring about her. The children lived through the book long enough to make their own mistakes, and not replicate their parents’ mistakes. Ezra dedicated his restaurant to what might have been the unexpressed desire of each of them, homesick.


In my opinion, Beck did not give a satisfying answer about why he left them at the beginning of the book. One reviewer stated that the end was “strong and not saccharine.” Strong probably meant the reader wanted more. Tyler did not answer all of my questions. Even so, I finished Homesick Restaurant, understanding the deserting father, in a way I did not expect.

For those, like me, who came from a broken home, this book brought a measure of understanding and forgiveness for the humanity of my parents. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant helped me understand why some men and women need to escape from home and the oppressing responsibilities. They are forgivable even though they justify leaving with pathetic excuses.

As adults, most of us realize that it is almost impossible to quit loving someone you are meant to love no matter how much hurt has passed through your heart on their account. Furthermore, parents or other loved ones can not be what you expect or want them to be no matter how hard they try. They can only be themselves just as each of us can only be who we are.

Homesick Restaurant
Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler (born October 25, 1941) has published 20 novels and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for Breathing Lessons. Her best known of which are Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985), and Breathing Lessons (1988). Because of her believable quirky characters and accurate details about their inner lives, she has also won many prestigious awards. She writes about the American family celebrating the unremarkable Americans and the ordinary aspects of their everyday lives. Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, she now lives in Baltimore, Maryland and is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Related Posts

Searching for Caleb

Accidental Tourist

A Flurry of Book Reviews

When I have too much to do, I do more so that nothing gets done perfectly.  In November I chose to write 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo.  I completed the basic novel, but that drove me to read for the purpose of looking at plot, dialogue, description, and general organization of novels.  In December quest for improving my novel, so far I have read 5 novels, 2 on Kindle and 3 in paperback.  I clocked over 20 hours of plane time, not counting waiting in airports over the last three weeks, and when I couldn’t use my phone, I had a paperback to tide me over.  On my phone, I just finished By Reason of Insanity by Randy Singer, and The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.  In paperback, I read Twilight by Sherryl Woods, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, and James Patterson’s Kill Me if You Can.  As an aside, if you buy a book in the Sacramento airport, you can return it and get 50% off the purchase price.  This works well if your plane doesn’t return at 10:35 p.m. and the bookstore open, and you’re not in a hurry to get to the hotel anyway.  I’ll give it to a friend.

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy began with an unexpected death by natural causes of a leader in the local political system.  Though I read this one first, and it is one of the longest at 502 pages, it might be the most memorable.  Dowling separated dialogue with miles of description. …”they had a clear view of the dark skeleton of the ruined abbey that dominated the town’s skyline… (4)”  Right away you have a clue that this the setting will be in England, and the political system is church oriented.  The plot is intricate, and character development intense and intertwined.  Adults have their dramas, but their children’s interactions and deceptions are what drive the story to a dramatic finish.  Sex and bad language, graphic in places, wouldn’t necessarily be classified as erotic. This was the only 3 star book that I read, but it had 4,347 reviewers.  The sheer numbers of reviewers tell me that it deserves many more stars than it received.  The descriptions deserve hours of copious note taking to usurp her unique wording and turn them into clichés.


Twilight like The Casual Vacancy started out with a death, but this one was the murder of a pastor who worked with inner city children in Chicago.  The widows in both novels did not appreciate the charity work that their husbands did for impoverished, street kids, and had church members who did everything but demonstrate the love of Christ.  Both widows had been devoted to their husbands, but immediately had suitors. In Twilight, dialogue drove the story more than description. The sex in Twilight, while less graphic than Dowling’s novel, stimulated the reader’s romantic imagination.   To me it was a little unbelievable, and less of a model for my writing.  Nonetheless it was a New York Times Best Seller, so people clearly liked it.  Only 13 people have reviewed this 4 star book on Amazon, so here’s my chance!


Kill Me If You Can by James Patterson and Marshall Karp was strictly a mystery with fast action on every page.  Indicative of the rapid pace, the book had 104 chapters, one for every change of conversation, and conversation guided this book as well as Twilight.  The minimal description moved briskly in short, choppy sentences.  “The talking was a big mistake.  Those extra few seconds were what I needed.  I pushed Katherine to the floor and flung the medical bag at Marta.”

The main character is a likable assassin with a conscience reminiscent of Jason Bourne, but with the twist that the reader doesn’t know who the “ghost” killer is right away. The romance in this book is cut and dried, in and out, probably erotic from a man’s perspective, but does nothing for a female reader.  This book is also a #1 best-selling author, and according to the clerk in the Honolulu airport, it was their best-selling book.  Two hundred ninety-eight reviewers on Amazon gave it a 4 star rating, too.  Mind Candy


A page turner on my iPhone, By Reason of Insanity, was more of a John Grisham type novel with 110 action-packed chapters and 382 pages.  No sex, but hints of electricity dotted this murder mystery.  Lots of people died, and some were presumed dead who didn’t die.  While this reader didn’t suspect the suspect, I had no clue who the real killer was.  Usually I guess wrong when I try to figure out mysteries, and this time was no different.  I can’t even figure out the mystery when I’m writing it.  The creep I thought did the deed, turned out to be the one who saved the day, but you may get it all wrong, too, and so I may have just told the end of the story.  The descriptions were not as outstanding as J.K.’s but they kept the reader interested.  “There are a million guys who would swallow broken glass just for a chance to take you out.”  I might be moved if a guy said that to me, but it didn’t trigger any romantic feelings in me as a reader. Since this was an e-reader, I have no idea how high it was on the book selling list, but along with 143 Amazon reviewers who rated it a 4 star novel, I enjoyed Insanity more that both Twilight and Kill Me If You Can, and, like millions of other readers, and I enjoyed them.

Accidental Tourist

Finally, the e-reader that I read because I borrowed its title, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler was probably my favorite because it was so funny.  Like all the other books except Rowling’s it had 343 pages, but only twenty chapters, 120 reviews and 4 stars.  The reader meandered through laughable drivel in this book to discover the plot hidden among the hilarious conversations and descriptions.

“Maybe you should put on your glasses.”

“Putting on my glasses would help you to see?” …

“Did you see the boy with the motor cycle?

“What boy?”

“He was parked beneath the underpass.”

It’s crazy to ride a motorcycle on a day like today.”

Their conversations don’t flow with each other, typical of many real conversations.  The protagonist inserts many of his own thoughts which are just as inane as his conversations with others.

The descriptions are as compelling, in my opinion.

“The car drew in around them like a room.  … Earlier the air conditioner had been running and now some artificial chill remained, quickly turning dank, carrying with it the smell of mildew.”

I have definitely smelled that in my car, haven’t you?  I would love to just clone this book, and publish it under my name, and I’d be done, but now I have to go back and polish mine, and try to make it as readable as Anne Tyler made hers.

I’ve had an enjoyable month of reading.  Unlike most of my reviews, I didn’t even consider Common Core Standards when I read the books.  These were all strictly for enjoyment and a little bit of studying the art of writing a novel.  I hope you will enjoy some of these novels as well.