In her stupendously wise and very funny seventeenth novel, Anne Tyler tackles the ambitious subject of national character without leaving the confines of Baltimore. At the airport, two Korean infants are delivered to two eagerly awaiting adoptive families: Ziba and Sami Yazdan, a prosperous Iranian-American couple, and Bitsy and Brad Donaldson, who wait with “flotillas of silvery balloons” and a boisterous entourage of relatives bearing video cameras. Enamored of all things foreign, Bitsy befriends the Yazdans only to impose on both households a well- intentioned but hokey vision of multiculturalism, dressing daughter Jin-Ho in a sagusam and chiding Ziba for “Americanizing” baby Susan’s hairstyle. Tyler captures an essential quality of the international adoption experience—the girls’ unfathomable backgrounds transform even fashion decisions into deeply symbolic acts, subject to earnest debate.
The first half of Digging to America consists almost entirely of folksy social commentary; Tyler delineates her characters’ foibles with such tender equanimity that this peevish reader longed for a touch of venom. Gradually, though, Sami’s mother, Maryam, emerges as the novel’s governing intelligence in a nuanced portrait of immigrant life (Tyler was married to the late Taghi Modarressi, an Iranian-American psychiatrist), and the saccharine element disappears. Maryam claims onlooker status to distance herself from the blithering Donaldsons and to dodge the advances of Bitsy’s widowed father, but her aloofness is really ontological, an innate standoffishness familiar to Tyler’s readers. Tyler, who was raised among various Quaker communities and who turned eleven before she first used a telephone, understands the powerful magic of self-imposed isolation like no other writer publishing today. Digging to America succeeds on many levels—as a satire of millennial parenting, a tribute to autumn romances, and, most important, an exploration of our risible (though poignant) attempts to welcome otherness into our midst.