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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler


The most recent novel by Anne Tyler, her 21st, Clock Dance opens in 1967 with a young Willa, age 11. We meet her father, Melvin, and her 6-year-old sister, Elaine. Willa’s mother, Alice, is not at home. She has left for a moment, or a night or a few days – or forever. Her family does not know. They do know that Alice is a difficult woman who resents her husband’s calm ways, and is harsh with her daughters. They however all love her; she is after all their wife and mother.

Then it is 1977 and Willa is in her second to last year at college and is flying home to visit her family, with boyfriend, Derek, in tow. Derek is from California, handsome and confident. He is about to graduate, and plans to make Willa his wife and return with her to California.

Then it is 1997 and Willa and Derek are living in California, married for many years and the parents of two sons, Ian and Sean. Derek makes a good living, Willa keeps house and looks after her husband and the boys.

I must say at this point I was wondering how committed I was to this novel. Anne Tyler is a decade older than I am, and I’ve been reading her books all of my adult life, some of them favourites, all of them worth reading. But these chapters, jumping forward a decade or two at a time were only somewhat interesting, and made me wonder about this new novel.

Until, Part II, 2017. We meet Willa again, married but with a second husband, Peter. The boys are grown and away from home, seldom in touch with their mother. Elaine rarely contacts her older sister. Willa’s life is that of a privileged woman putting in time.   

Then a phone call - from the neighbour of a young woman, Denise, who was until recently living with Willa’s son, Sean, in Baltimore. Denise has been shot in the leg, and her nine-year-old daughter needs someone to look after her while her mother is in the hospital. Though the child, Cheryl, is not Sean’s daughter Willa feels she must help, so she and her husband fly to Baltimore. Willa hopes to see Sean while she is there.

Neither of Willa’s sons are in permanent relationships, and neither have produced the grandchildren Willa yearns for. But, here is an unlikely chance to care for a child, even a child who at first seems so unattractive – and lives in a lower class neigbourhood so different to anyplace Willa has ever lived. But, she is needed. She and Peter settle into Denise’s guest room, and take on responsibility fro Cheryl. Cheryl though is a very competent little girl, far more capable in some ways than her live-and-let-live mother.

Willa, of course, remembers so clearly what her life was life at that age. Cheryl says to Willa, “I’m way more grown-up than I seem.” And, Willa knew exactly what she meant. She had felt that way during her own childhood; she’d felt like a “watchful, wary adult housed in a little girl’s body. And yet nowadays, paradoxically, it often seemed to her that from behind her adult face a child about eleven years old was still gazing out at the world.”  And there is the beauty of this novel. Anne Tyler sees into the core of each of her characters and shows us all who we are, and what we could be, or who we might have become – if only.

This time spent in Baltimore with Denise and Cheryl, the actions taken by Willa’s husband, Peter, and her son, Sean force Willa to observe her own life more closely. She remembers her childhood, her first marriage and thinks about where she is now, a woman past middle age but a woman who could still make a change – big or little – and spend the rest of her life differently, or not.

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