Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance tells the story of Willa Drake and her last-ditch attempt to choose her own life. Willa’s history and personality are revealed in the first part of the novel through three incidents that occur during a thirty-year period. When she is eleven, her mother disappears for two days. When she is twenty-one, Willa accepts a proposal of marriage, although she has not yet finished college. When she is forty-one, her husband instigates a road-rage incident. Willa’s response to each crisis is to play safe, opting for polite accommodation. Tyler reminds us, through these carefully scripted scenes, of the lasting influence of childhood experience. Willa has grown up with a volatile, angry mother and a soft-spoken, passive father. Many years later, moving to Arizona, she is attracted to the giant saguaro cacti that loom over the landscape: ‘She loved their dignity, their endurance.’ This admiration seems emblematic of Willa’s aspirations for herself.
Part two of the novel begins with Willa, now sixty-one, reluctantly living in the golfing haven to which her second husband, Peter, has chosen to retire. Willa has no interest in golf and sits alone in an unfamiliar home while Peter tries to improve his handicap. When she receives a phone call telling her that her son’s former girlfriend Denise, a woman she has never met, has been shot in the leg and is in hospital, Willa impulsively flies to Baltimore. Even though Denise’s nine-year-old daughter, Cheryl, is not a blood relative, Willa cannot resist playing grandmother. And so her adventures begin.
Clock Dance is Anne Tyler’s twenty-second novel. In a career spanning more than fifty years, she has achieved the rare feat of simultaneously delighting generations of readers and winning literary acclaim. Breathing Lessons was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989; A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Like her contemporaries Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson, Tyler’s subject is families and how we use our early experiences. Many of her novels are set in Baltimore, where she has observed her fellow citizens for years. Typically, they explore the mishaps and small triumphs of inadequate men (The Accidental Tourist, The Beginner’s Goodbye) and daffy, good-hearted women (Breathing Lessons, A Spool of Blue Thread). Tyler’s achievement, like that of Jane Austen, working on her ‘three or four families in a country village’, is to create characters who are instantly familiar and recognisable.
Like many of Tyler’s heroines, Willa’s talents only gradually emerge. Tiny details reveal the woman she has become in her sixties. Her carry-on case for the flight to Baltimore is the largest allowed: ‘She liked to dress nicely when she traveled.’ She can be manipulatively helpless: ‘Marriage was often a matter of dexterity, in Willa’s experience.’ Peter, who calls Willa ‘little one’, insists on accompanying her to Baltimore. ‘When have you ever traveled alone?’ She has, in fact, but Willa weakly acquiesces for the ‘comfort’ of being looked after. Her knowledge of five languages and long teaching career scarcely register. But arriving in unfamiliar surroundings causes Willa to ponder her own behaviour and that of her family. Peter clings to his laptop and mobile phone and is resentful of Willa’s interest in the new community. Having dinner with her son, who lives in Baltimore, Willa is disconcerted when he entertains his girlfriend with a gleefully spiteful critique of Peter. It occurs to her that she has spent her life apologising for men.
Where families fail, friends and neighbours can fill the void. Willa’s encounters with Cheryl and Denise, and their sociable, oddball neighbours, are related in beadily observed, often hilarious accounts. Willa bonds with plump, precocious Cheryl, one of Tyler’s most appealing creations. Friends offer gifts and advice; the secret of Denise’s shooting is revealed; doctor Ben dispenses antibiotics and life-coaching. Some of this could have been cheesy, but in Tyler’s capable hands it is funny and interesting. It is Ben who coaxes Willa towards a more nuanced perspective on her parents’ marriage – ‘My wife used to say that her idea of hell would be marrying Gandhi,’ he muses – and Willa’s exuberant, gifted mother, maddened by saintliness, slips into focus. The Canadian novelist Carol Shields described the ‘true’ subject of serious fiction as being not ‘ongoing wars or political issues, but the search of an individual for his or her true home’. Tyler’s novel presents a moving portrait of a woman, late in life, discovering an environment in which she can flourish. The question is whether Willa will seize the opportunity offered or return to docile wifehood. Tyler keeps the reader in suspense until the final paragraphs.