A new novel by Anne Tyler is an event for legions of readers the world over – myself included. Her detractors lay a charge she has claimed herself: that she ends up writing the same sort of book each time. The Baltimore setting, the indecisive men, the domineering mothers (she is always much harsher on her female characters), the messy congress of family life across the years are all familiar ingredients. But for me, her novels are far more exciting than comfort reads. I eagerly anticipate her books thinking, ‘How will she do it this time?’
If you haven’t discovered Tyler’s work, I’d describe each as an alchemy of subtle shifts in her characters’ lives and their urgent, all-consuming desire for change – which is achieved to different degrees in different novels. (Maybe that’s the factor that helps determine people’s choice of their favourite Tyler novel, or perhaps whether one book is less satisfying than another.) In Clock Dance, Tyler waits until the very end before twisting the story away from the path it would seem to be taking. But she leaves us shaken many times before that.
Clock Dance is the story of Willa Drake, whom we first meet in 1967 as a child who smooths over the ructions created by her volatile mother; who helps shield her sister from their father’s weak attempts to keep the household running. Willa is far better suited to adulthood so, after a longish chapter, we meet her in 1977, as a student making a trip home with the man who is to be her first husband.
The first violent nudge towards change occurs on the flight – her seatmate pulls a gun on her, an incident which is hidden from all around her and ends without drama but which revisits her, meaningfully, years later. We jump then to 1997, when she loses her husband in a car crash. Twenty years later, we see her taking another flight, this time to Baltimore with her pompous second husband, Peter.
Willa’s purpose is to help care for an ex-girlfriend of her grown-up son who is recovering from a gunshot wound. Arriving in Baltimore, Willa and Peter find Denise in hospital, while Denise’s young daughter Cheryl (not Willa’s granddaughter, but why not? - Tyler’s characters are often impulsive), is running the household (a task that seems to fall to her generally). As the chapters unfold, Willa and Cheryl form a bond – Tyler is as good at evoking the frustrations of youth as those of late adulthood – but it’s not the only new relationship Willa tentatively pursues that pushes her away from her old life towards something new.
The 1967, 1977 and 1997 chapters conclude a little before the middle of the book when the story jumps to 2017 and starts again at Chapter 1. Everything has happened already but we’re still hungry for every insight, every laugh, every lump in the throat Tyler offers. It’s as if these weeks in Baltimore are Willa’s chance to work through her past and potentially emerge at the end as the person she wants to be next. They are delightful and show Tyler on top form.
In a recent interview, Tyler said, ‘I love, as a reader, to be trusted to get what happens in between times. I don’t need to know about every year.’ When I first read The Beginner’s Goodbye I decided it was a chapter short. (It has nine, when nearly everything she’d written up till then had ten or twenty.) But then, even without re-reading, I realised I was wrong. As I thought about the book, everything I needed to know was there.
The gaps in Clock Dance are revealing. We don’t see Willa’s self-indulgent, often nasty mother after 1967, but we’re all too aware of the shadow she casts. We see so little of Willa’s sons, but we learn that the flipside of being a ‘predictable’ mother, as Willa has deliberately styled herself, is being one from whom it’s all too easy to detach yourself. Tyler’s skill is such that we don’t always need the words – their absence is imprinted in the spaces between.
Clock Dance is a playful, funny and engaging novel from possibly our finest living novelist. It isn’t my favourite – try Back When We Were Grown-ups, Earthly Possessions or A Patchwork Planet – but it’s a book I wouldn’t be without.
Clock Dance is published by Vintage.