Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by Anne Tyler
Hardcover: 304 pages
July 10, 2018, ISBN-13: 978-0525521228
The clock dance in Anne Tyler’s new novel originates with three pre-teen girls who line up behind each other and move their arms like the hands of a clock. Time flies; life is short, too short to be stalled in a negative pattern left over from childhood, especially if you are sixty-one years old, as is the protagonist, Willa.
“If Willa were to invent a clock dance,” we read, “… hers would feature a woman racing across a state… all the while madly whirling, so that the audience saw only a spinning blur of colour before she vanished into the wings…Gone!”
In Part I of Clock Dance the author shows Willa at four formative events in her life. In 1967, at eleven, she comes home late one afternoon to find that her mother has taken off after a flare-up with her father. A volatile personality and a would-be actor, Willa’s mother is often delightful company, but her dull life in a shabby house on outskirts of a small Pennsylvania town rankles, and she frequently explodes in anger and hits the girls. Their mild-mannered father is a high school shop teacher who can prepare only one meal, grilled cheese sandwiches. Willa bravely tackles the household chores and takes an optimistic attitude to keep up her six year old sister’s spirits, but inside she is worried sick, because their mother has never stayed away overnight before.
When Willa gets upset over her failed attempt to make chocolate pudding, her father goes into teaching mode rather than that of comforting parent. Willa’s mother returns in an upbeat frame of mind, offering no explanation for her absence. Their father’s failure to confront their mother fills the little girls with dismay. Willa reacts by being distant, and when her father asks if she is mad at him, she says that she is just “overtired”, which her mother always uses as an escuse for lashing out.
The consequences of Willa’s acquiescent attitude are shown in the next section, which takes place in 1977. With her boyfriend, Derek, she is flying home from their Illinois college where she is a scholarship student specializing in languages and linguistics. Derek, who will be meeting her family for the first time, is graduating that spring, with an executive position waiting for him in a sporting goods company in his home state of California. Just before the flight, he proposes, urging Willa to marry him that summer and come with him. Though thrilled to be asked, Willa would prefer to be engaged, and to finish her degree in Illinois, and Derek seems to agree.
Aboard the plane, Willa takes the middle seat, with Derek near the window and a troubled-looking man on the aisle. In mid-flight, she feels a hard object poking her ribs, and her neighbour whispers that it’s a gun and that he will kill her and Derek if they make a move. Terrified, Willa keeps still. When Derek wants to trade places, ignoring her mute appeal to stay put, she complies, convinced that in a moment she will die – but nothing happens. On landing, the troubled-looking man is the first to disembark and disappears into the airport.
When she tells Derek about the incident, he says she was mistaken, or that the man was joking. When her father suggests reporting the matter to Security, Derek says the man was just having some fun with a “snippy little college girl.” Only her sister, Elaine, says that Willa should have pressed her call button and made a fuss.
Derek goes against Willa’s wishes by telling her parents they are engaged and that he hopes to “talk her around” to marrying him in the summer. At that, an argument breaks out between him and her mother, who points out that he is dismissing Willa’s plans for her life. The two appear to enjoy quarrelling. Perhaps because it’s her mother speaking the truth that Willa says, “I’m marrying him and that’s that.” Thus she moves from appeasing her mother to appeasing Derek.
In the spring of 1997, driving on a California freeway with Willa in the passenger seat, Derek is seized with road rage at a slow-moving car and, in passing it, causes a crash that kills him at age forty-three. Willa blames herself for upsetting Derek by talking about their teenaged son, Ian. By autumn, however, she feels “more or less normal”. She has packs up Derek’s clothes, donates them to charity, and turns his study into a room where Ian can hang out and practise with his band. Both she and her older son, Sean, start university. At last, it seems, Willa will relinquish guilt and compliance and chart her own course.
In Part II of the novel, set in 2017, we see that Willa, now sixty-one, has taken a step backward. She has moved from California with her husband, Peter, a semi-retired lawyer, to a golfing community in Tucson, Arizona. Willa has left behind an ESL teaching position, doesn’t golf and has no friends in Tucson. Her sons are single and far away; Ian is an environmentalist in the Sierra Nevada; Sean is in sports equipment in Baltimore.
Then, out of the blue, Willa gets a telephone call from Baltimore, from a stranger, a neighbour of Sean’s former live-in lady, Denise, who has been shot in the leg and is in hospital. The caller found a number for “Sean’s Mum”, on Denise’s telephone list, and assumes that Willa is Denise’s mother-in-law. She all but orders Willa to come and look after her “granddaughter”, nine year old Cheryl. Instead of explaining that she has never met Denise or Cheryl, and that Cheryl is not Sean’s child, Willa decides to go and help out. Peter, who calls her “little one”, and often makes her feel “naive and inexperienced”, reacts with consternation and insists on coming along.
Some reviewers have claimed that the action of Clock Dance really starts with this phone call, and that the scenes from Willa’s earlier life make the novel drag. Yet the earlier sections are important in showing what shaped Willa into such a diplomatic, mollifying person. These scenes could have been presented as flashbacks, but they were, some reviewers would have claimed that the break in time was confusing. Literary novels like Tyler’s Clock Dance typically put character ahead of setting and plot, and her books appeal to readers like insight into characters’ hearts and minds.
In Baltimore, Willa meets Cheryl, who is capable beyond her years, and her mother, Denise, an affable but disorganized school secretary. Soon Willa comes to admire their mother-daughter relationship and Denise’s friendships with her co-workers and neighbours. One is an elderly doctor with a clientele of Medicaid patients. Eventually Willa learns that Sean treated Denise badly.
The 2017 section, which comprises three quarters of the novel, parallels the earlier sections in that it includes a pre-teen girl, a gun, and a significant airline flight. In addition to the tempus fugit clock dance metaphor, there is another key image, the saguaro cacti which are the one thing Willa likes about Arizona. Their symmetrically-placed arms reach upward and their texture is “like a cucumber, cool and smooth and sturdy”. Clock Dance shows how human connection and community can make a person sturdy at any age.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s most recent novel is Grace in Love: A novel about Grace Woodsworth, (Ottawa, Baico, 2018, firstname.lastname@example.org )