Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Searching for Caleb takes place in the mid-1970s. It was a directionless time in America. President Nixon was forced out of office. The Vietnam War ended in disaster. The nation was politically and ethically disillusioned. Morale was at its lowest point since the Kennedy assassination. The country had lost its sense of common purpose.
The principal characters in this old Anne Tyler novel are also on rather murky quests. Daniel Peck, a retired judge, hasn’t seen his brother Caleb since he fled the family in 1912. Every time a tenuous trail of evidence surfaces, Daniel’s granddaughter Justine accompanies him on his fruitless journeys.
Justine herself is married to her clever but directionless cousin Duncan, a rebel who detests his stodgy relatives and flits from one peculiar career to another. Justine supplements their erratic income by telling fortunes for people who aren’t sure what they’re searching for. Even Meg, Justine’s daughter, is on a quest to establish a more stable life than her parents have to offer.
As always, we fall in love with Tyler’s quirky characters and their families. The Peck patriarchs are like waxworks in some pseudo-aristocratic museum, looking down their noses at the rest of the world while slowly decomposing together in the family mansion. Though sometimes frustrated with and despairing of one another, the Pecks maintain a kind of dignified familial love that binds them together.
Then there’s Tyler’s breezy narrative style, describing a neighbor who uses orange juice cans as hair rollers; the housekeeper with “a wrinkled face like a yellow paper kite”; or Duncan, dissolving from an antiques dealer to a semi-introvert playing solitaire or working jigsaw puzzles on the living room floor. And what an empathy Tyler has over the aging process, as Grandfather Daniel’s decline becomes increasingly bound to his yearning for his long-lost brother.
For one lengthy passage Searching for Caleb takes an interesting detour through an engaging family history. Eventually, evidence leads us into a fascinating underworld of obscure jazz and blues musicians. Like veins in the body, Tyler’s paths are rich in the blood of understanding and compassion she has for all her characters.