Date Published: August 28, 2007
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 3.0 out of 5
Book Summary: Two families, who would otherwise never have come together, meet by chance at the Baltimore airport – the Donaldsons, a very American couple, and the Yazdans, Maryam’s fully assimilated son and his attractive Iranian wife. Each couple is awaiting the arrival of an adopted infant daughter from Korea. After the instant babies from distant Asia are delivered, Bitsy Donaldson impulsively invites the Yazdans to celebrate: an “arrival party” that from then on is repeated every year as the two families become more and more deeply intertwined. Even Maryam is drawn in – up to a point. When she finds herself being courted by Bitsy Donaldson’s recently widowed father, all the values she cherishes – her traditions, her privacy, her otherness–are suddenly threatened.
A luminous novel brimming with subtle, funny, and tender observations that immerse us in the challenges of both sides of the American story.
My Thoughts: Bitsy Donaldson and her husband, Brad are very different from Sami and Ziba Yazdan. When the families cross paths at the airport while both waiting for the arrival of the little girls they’ve adopted from Korea, Brad insists Sami and Ziba and Sami’s mother, Maryam join them at the Donaldsons to welcome the babies girls. It makes sense for these families to become friends. Bitsy won’t have it any other way, anyway. Most people find it exceedingly difficult to say no to Bitsy because she doesn‘t make it easy to do! Ziba is too well-mannered and kind to refuse Bitsy’s orders...ahem, I mean invitations. Sami and Ziba also like the idea of their new baby daughter, Susan having a little Korean girl her age, Jin-ho Donaldson, as a friend. They feel that if this requires Sami and Ziba to be friends with the Donaldsons they‘ll do it. Quiet, well-mannered Maryam isn’t so sure a close friendship with the loud, opinionated though well-meaning Bitsy is a good idea.
Digging to America is a character-driven book. There really isn’t a plot but the theme about how people from other countries move and settle in the United States and slowly acclimate to the American way of life, is well-developed, as are the corresponding themes of identity, family, friendship, loyalty and individuality. Anne Tyler deftly examines relationships within the context of family and friendship and skillfully relays how cultural identity plays into and, often, alters these relationships. Tyler explores the idea of “otherness” for immigrants trying to fit in and what it means to be different. Susan and Jin-ho aren’t the only characters who’ve moved to the USA from another country. Maryam Yazdan, Sami’s mother and now Susan’s grandmother, grew up in Iran. She moved to America just shy of twenty to marry an Iranian man chosen by her family. Susan and Jin-ho adapt easily to life in America since they’re babies with the love and support of their family and friends. In contrast, Maryam, after more than 20 years in the United States, still hasn’t adjusted. She isn’t really comfortable with life in America or with the behavior of Americans. Maryam appears to feel awkward and uncomfortable around most people including her own son. Sami almost completely denies his Iranian heritage and has always wanted a completely American lifestyle. Maryam’s sadness is almost palpable in a few scenes where Sami is dismissive of the Iranian culture and his heritage. But Maryam doesn’t try hard to adapt, often criticizing American’s behavior. Tyler adeptly portrays the range of human emotions with her characters in this book.
Maryam’s relationship with Sami is, sadly, dysfunctional but the other relationships portrayed: Sami and Ziba, Bitsy and Brad as well as Bitsy’s parents Dave and Connie are strong and solid marriages. I thought this was intriguing especially considering that the characters are flawed, some more strongly than others, much like real people. Tyler does a terrific job showing how the couples support and help each other in their marriages, even when one spouse is unreasonable. I especially enjoyed the scenes in which the couples face issues and questions about raising their Korean-born daughters. So it was to my surprise and utter disappointment that I really wasn’t able to identify with or relate to any of the characters in Digging to America.
Maryam was the most fully-developed character, but her arrogance, critical nature and self-centered attitude made her difficult for me to like and she became tedious and exhausting. Bitsy is pushy, opinionated and forces her ideas on others, particularly Ziba. Ziba allows herself to be easily manipulated. She doubts herself and is extremely insecure. I wanted to know more about Ziba and Bitsy: their motivations, their backgrounds what may have happened in their lives to cause them to behave in this way and their ideas about raising their Korean daughters. Ziba and Bitsy remain a mystery for the most part, providing peeks into their history but no real explanations for the women they are. I essentially became irritated as I continued to read this book since I was unaware of Bitsy and Ziba’s motivations for their behavior. I had many questions and they remained unanswered.
Tyler’s writing is compelling and it’s easy to sink into one of her books quickly. She often addresses fascinating issues, exploring them skillfully as she does here with immigration, immigrants and assimilation. She doesn’t shy away from emotions or drama and excels at incorporating witty dialogue and commentary in her stories. I thought Digging to America was captivating when I first started reading it but by the second half of the book I was mostly aggravated as I read.