“Redhead by the Side” of the Road by Anne Tyler

Genre: Literary FictionRedhead
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: April 7, 2020

If I was to host a dinner party with my favorite female authors whose first name is some sort of derivative of “Ann” my guests would include Ann Napolitano, Ann Patchett, Anna Quindlen, and Anne Tyler. In Tyler’s latest novel, the narrative’s tone is overflowing with laugh-out-loud dry wit.  Her protagonist, Micah (an example of a difficult name to remember that I just switch to Michael in my mind) Mortimer is another likable yet quirky character, the kind that the author favors. It takes talent to write comedy with a rather dull hero.

Micah is a fastidiously well-organized 43-year-old tech geek who follows his routines to the point of bordering on OCD.  He heeds all rules, big or small, believing that this gives his life a sense of order. He pretends that there is a Big Brother-like Traffic God watching his every move in the car, which is why he always, always signals—even in his own driveway! When those living in the building he manages do not follow the guidelines, he writes them “friendly” reminders. Most residents get one or more per week. And the poor guy can’t figure out why women keep dumping him.

Micah is the extreme opposite of his lackadaisical family, which makes for some very funny dialogue between himself and the other Mortimers. His brother-in-law asks him “What day is it today? Is it [your] vacuuming day, a dusting day? Is it a scrub-the-baseboards-with-a-Q-tip day? In all seriousness, Micah replies, “it is kitchen day.” His family roars. Halfway through the novel, we meet a new character. A teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. Since Micah is not built for life’s unexpected developments, his world becomes unmanageable. It is not a spoiler to inform you that the redhead in the title is not referring to the boy. Tyler cleverly uses the word redhead throughout the novel as a metaphor for the protagonist’s powerlessness to see clearly.  Is that a redhead child? No, it is a fire hydrant.

Micah fails to understand the ‘need’ to accept—or at least try to accept—the yin and yang of life. He stubbornly refuses to see that he might be the problem.  In the hands of a lesser author, he could easily come off as Mr. Magoo. Tyler keeps him human. She also makes us wonder. Is Miach even capable of change?  Are any of us capable of change?  In the tradition of “Akin” by Emma Donoghue, or “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, “Redhead” is a feel-good story about having second chances in life. Wouldn’t we all like a do-over? Yes, you have read this story before. Still, right about now in these crazy times, can’t we all benefit from a heartwarming tale?

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