There's a temptation at the start of any Anne Tyler novel to be so lulled by her soothing voice and cozy descriptions of domestic life that you assume you can settle in for an easy read. That's a mistake, of course, as the prolific novelist has made an extraordinary career out of exploring the toughest themes. In The Beginner's Goodbye, her subject is grief. A man's wife returns from the dead in the very first sentence, her same stolid, sensibly dressed self appearing at his side on the street. Later we learn that they had quarreled one evening, both having retreated irritably to their separate rooms, when an oak tree smashed through their roof and killed her. ''I can't do this,'' Aaron says of surviving loss. ''I don't know how.''
Aaron continues accepting without question when Dorothy materializes outside their battered house or at the farmers' market. And since Tyler isn't preoccupied with whether her visits are real or Aaron is just nuts, neither are we. (This reader found herself more incredulous over a 35-year-old man saying ''my golly'' and ''good heavens.'' Bless Tyler for her teapot vernacular, but a little goes a long way.)
Tyler's slim, elegant novel is not on the surface a suspenseful one. Aaron moves in with his hovering sister. He returns to work at the family publishing house whose specialty is beginner's guides to life and endures the attentions of his delightfully quirky colleagues. He aches to share the minutiae of mourning with Dorothy, though sharing was never their strong suit. ''That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.'' Aaron is Tyler's beginner, a man crippled in more ways than one. But her portrayal of his pain and clumsy resilience is beautifully intricate. By the exquisitely romantic emotional climax, Aaron's ordinary life has bloomed into an opera. B+