Starting the second half of my Anne Tyler 2021 project and this is more like it – first off, I remembered the main premise, second off, I loved this. Loved it. Interestingly, this was the fourth Anne Tyler I read – I must have bought it in 1996 (I didn’t write the date inside it!) as I read it in April 1998, having bought it, “The Accidental Tourist” and “Saint Maybe” in 1996 (according to my notes in my reading journals0 and read “The Accidental Tourist” in the January (I’d been loaned “Earthly Possessions” in August 1997 and then read “Morgan’s Passing” from the library in September 1997). And I can see why I then claimed Tyler as a firm favourite and kept on reading her (this is the last white-spined one in the pile in the photo – I then moved to buying her new novels as they came out from QPD (Quality Paperbacks Direct – remember them? getting the paperback when the hardback came out, but it was inconveniently hardback sized?).

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Ladder of Years”

(1996)

Sometimes she felt like a tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges. (p. 23)

Starting off with a newspaper cutting about the disappearance of a woman, a wife and mother, whose eye colour no one is sure of and whose outfit is described randomly, we meet Delia, who has just Had Enough after two humiliations in a row and walks off down the beach, in her swimming costume, with only a beach bag (that handily contains the holiday money). She thinks she’s only going back to the holiday house where they are with her two sisters and the kids, but then hitches a ride and she’s off.

A new life beckons and I absolutely loved all the details of her settling into her small-town existence. I’ve always loved small-town novels, from Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone” to most of Larry McMurtry, the Big Stone Gap novels, “The Library at the Edge of the World”, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend“, etc., etc., and this fits into that mould – she finds a place to stay, a job, there’s the diner, the friend made in the town square … Gradually, as Delia (or as she styles herself, Miss Grinstead) makes a new personality for herself however much “she had noticed that Miss Grinstead was not a very friendly person” (p. 101), she becomes known and loved in the community – did she mean to do that? Various models of marriage and divorce make themselves known to her subtly, and her family starts to slither back into her life – with one unexpected ally.

Delia even gets a little holiday in, experiencing the seaside and even its music being exactly the same as on her fateful family holiday. But then the family starts to draw her in; there’s a wedding to attend, and when she gets home for that and finds a tearful bride and a groom with a trial to overcome (this is a very funny part of the book), is she going to be able to peel herself away again or was she more wanted and needed than she thought. And has she changed:

She had never realized before that worry could be dumped in someone else’s lap like a physical object. She sould have done it years ago. Why did Sam always get to be the one? (p. 288)

What’s interesting about this one is you have Team Organised and Team Flighty – according to Team Organised anyway – but Delia is organised and efficient at running her family and an office, whereas Team Organised, represented by her husband and her second employer, are, frankly, pissy and over-critical. So it’s easy to swap allegiance, but I did notice that.

Other typical Tyler touches – an old house that is dropping to pieces, although this one has a redo that threatens to update it thoroughly, an extended family living together, an older brother with an usuitable girlfriend who already has a child (this is taken directly from the last book, but with less disastrous consequences). Delia and Eliza live in the family home still. There’s a photographer although he’s retired and no one has taken on his business out of a sort of life-drift, as far as I can tell. And the family of Grinsteads, in the end, is much like the family in “Saint Maybe” and others where things are just not discussed:

you do things such a different way. Not mingling or taking part, living to yourselves like you do; and then you pretend like that’s normal. You pretend like everything’s normal; you’re so cagey and smooth; you gloss things over; you don’t explain. (p. 322)

At the end of the book, Delia has a choice to make. She doesn’t make the choice I would choose for her, but I can cope with that. What an excellent read this was!

Animal note: There are two cats in the book. One is elderly and there is a poignant moment, but both survive and flourish (phew).

Have you read this one? What did you think?