Well, we’re on to the last two books in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and the two that I’d not read previously – how exciting! Fortunately, I really enjoyed this one, a big return to form for me and also a nice, long, satisfying read. I’ve very much cherished this run through Tyler’s novels and I’m not sure quite when I should announce my challenge for next year – what do you think?

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 – “Clock Dance”

(16 April 2020)

“My father was so mild-mannered that he thought it was impolite to pick up a telephone in mid-ring,” she said. “He always allowed a ring to finish before he answered.”

“Ha,” Ben said.

“It was marry such a person or be such a person, I used to figure,” she said.

“You might want to rethink that,” Ben told her.

“Excuse me?”

“Those aren’t your only two choices, you know.”

“Well, it can seem that way when you’re eleven,” she said. (p. 114)

Interestingly, this book came out about the same time as Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered” (which I bought, read and reviewed as it came out in 2018), and they both featured a middle-aged woman named Willa, of all things, who ends up caring for a grandchild (or should that be “grandchild” in this case?). How odd is that? Anyway, I loved the Kingsolver but I also loved this, and both fitted well in the author’s oeuvre as a whole, so I wouldn’t like to call it between then.

Here we follow Willa episodically, first in a chaotic household with her younger daughter, a passive, kind father (though he does seem to be one of Tyler’s “corrector” types with household systems on the go; she doesn’t really labour this, though) and a really quite scary, emotional mother who is always flouncing off out of the picture, leaving Willa to try to cope. As a result, she thinks that you can either be the quiet dependable one or marry one, and she’s spent her life, after one exciting event where she’s led to believe she’s at risk on a plane, and her subsequent choice to marry against her parents’ wishes, fading into the background and helping everyone at her own expense.

We hop through the years with Willa in an episodic structure until she’s married to her second husband (who is very much a “corrector” and who we will her on to escape from) as she deals with a call from her son’s ex-girlfriend’s neighbour: Denise has been accidentally shot in the leg and there’s no one to look after her daughter, Cheryl. Cheryl isn’t a blood relation of Willa but she flies out from Arizona back to Baltimore and fills in a caring role happily (Cheryl is one of Tyler’s at-first-glance unprepossessing, lost children, but she proves to be reliable and delightful) and slotting into the neighbourhood chorus of slightly odd people who live on the street and form a sort of found family.

When Denise recovers and Willa might no longer be needed, no one wants to see her go. An accidental revelation sees her fleeing, but Peter has lost his patience and refuses to collect her from the airport, while the lovely widowed doctor, Ben, gives her a lift at a horrible time in the morning. The end of the book is, for once, perfect (Tyler has had a habit of disappointing me with her protagonists’ choices). Oh, and there’s a charming dog who comes through fine, and an incidental cat, ditto.

There’s a really interesting sub-theme about how we grieve (how did I not see this theme running through so many of her books? Another legacy of reading them all), with Willa’s father explaining how he breaks the day up into chunks, while Ben has a different approach, in this thoughtful and carefully observed book full of thoughtful people making careful observations. I think in that quote above, Tyler’s still espousing the theme I’ve found throughout her books, that it’s OK to be who you are. Willa might not actually be that person, and she might be just about to find that out.

Have you read this one? What did you think? And when should I share my new challenge for 2022?