Review: Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

Review: Clock Dance by Anne TylerClock Dance by Anne Tyler
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on July 10, 2018
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A bewitching new novel of family and self-discovery from the best-selling, award-winning author of A Spool of Blue Thread.

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother's sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she yearns to be a grandmother, yet the prospect is dimming. So, when Willa receives a phone call from a stranger, telling her that her son's ex-girlfriend has been shot, she drops everything and flies across the country to Baltimore. The impulsive decision to look after this woman and her nine-year-old daughter will lead Willa into uncharted territory--surrounded by eccentric neighbors, plunged into the rituals that make a community a family, and forced to find solace in unexpected places. A bittersweet, probing novel of hope and grief, fulfillment and renewal, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

My Review:

Willa Drake is living a life of such quiet desperation that she never quite realized just how desperate she’s become. And just how much of an apologetic doormat she is in her own life. Until circumstances, along with a tiny bit of her own once and future spark, finally crack open, not even a doorway, but at least a window out.

We all tend to marry types, and Willa’s first husband was a real jerk. Her second is an ass. Not quite an asshole, but certainly an ass. And her older son takes after his father – her first husband. But both of them condescend to Willa at every turn, and act like the world revolves around them, because Willa does everything she can to enable them to maintain that belief.

Her second son, who we don’t see all that much of, takes after her. She patterned her own behavior on her father, a quiet, saintly man who married a most likely bipolar or manic depressive drama queen.

The idea that a person either marries Gandhi or becomes Gandhi is depressing as hell, and it’s an idea that Willa seems to have embraced wholeheartedly. She’s been the Gandhi in every relationship – the saintly one who enables everything and forgives everyone all of their trespasses.

And, as one of the characters says, it must be frustrating to be married to such a person because the non-Gandhi always feels guilty, bitter or both pretty much all the time. It also means that the Gandhi-type enables all of their partner’s bad behavior, including abuse, and does not deal with the damage that is being done to any innocents in the household.

Like the children. Willa and her sister Elaine were both abused by their mother, but dealt with it in different ways. Elaine is distant and self-absorbed, Elaine makes peace at any and all costs. Neither is a particularly healthy way to deal.

But this story is finally about Willa breaking free. It happens almost by accident. Her son’s ex-girlfriend is hospitalized, leaving her 9-year-old daughter with nobody and no place. Not that little Cheryl isn’t surprisingly independent, but she’s still too young to be living by herself.

In a fluke, a neighbor calls Willa. And Willa, empty-nesting and looking for a purpose other than mollifying her husband, jumps at the chance to fly from Tucson to Baltimore to take care of a child she’s never even met.

Oh, so slowly, and oh so cautiously, Willa steps further and further out from that life of quiet self-effacement and desperation. And sets herself free.

Escape Rating C+: So many people love Anne Tyler, and I have so many friends who read literary fiction. It’s the stuff of the best seller lists after all. But I usually bounce right off of it, because the stories are so grim, the characters are so quiet, and so little happens.

And that’s kind of true in Clock Dance. The first half of the book was rough going for me. Until the point where Willa agrees to go to Baltimore, it’s so easy to see her making one mistake after another. The way that she gets into (and actually out of) her first marriage is depressing in its predictability. It’s sad to see that when we meet her again years later, she’s essentially recreated the same dynamic with her second husband.

It’s only when she goes to Baltimore to take care of Cheryl and her mother Denise that the story begins to move – just as Willa does. In her own life everyone treats her as a doormat. Her husband even calls her “little one” in a way that is as demeaning as it gets.

But with Cheryl and Denise and their working middle class neighborhood, Willa rediscovers the purpose that she lost along the way. It’s not that she becomes selfish, it’s that she’s helping others who also give back in return. She’s part of the community, not a servant to select members of it.

Her rebellion is as quiet as her desperation, and seems to take her forever to finally achieve – because it takes her forever to finally acknowledge her own wants and needs after years of looking after everyone else.

I wasn’t so much moved by this story as I was frustrated by it. A big part of me wanted this to be women’s fiction rather than literary fiction – because there would be more plot, more action, and more of a sense of resolution at the end. And the first depressing half would have ended a lot quicker.

The most forthright person in the story is young Cheryl. For a 9-year-old she’s pretty self-aware and knows who she is and what she wants. She’s certainly more self-aware than Willa. Willa has been such a cipher in her own life that she continues to be a cipher even when she’s the heroine. Most of her self-talk is utterly self-effacing. I’m not saying that she’s not realistic, because I’m all too aware that she is.

People, particularly women, often “settle” instead of striving. We’ve all done it at times in our lives, often for reasons that seem good at the time. But just because her character is ultra-realistic doesn’t make a book with her at the center all that enjoyable. More like a bit depressing until the very, very end.

If you love literary fiction, this is a book you’ll probably enjoy. If, like me, you have your doubts about litfic, this one won’t change your mind.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

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