In Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, readers follow Willa Drake from the ages of eleven to sixty-one and watch her make difficult decisions at every turn, choosing between broadening herself or shrinking herself to please others.
As a child gamboling around the streets of 1950s Lark City, Pennsylvania, with her best friend Sonya, Willa must deal with her gentle, caring father Melvin, her sloppy, rebellious, comic-loving little sister Elaine – to whom Willa often acts as a substitute mother figure – and her mother, Alice, who is beautiful but displays wildly varying moods and a high temper. Alice often disappears when in an angry, depressive mood, which leaves Willa and Elaine with their father’s grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen vegetables and after-dinner games of Parcheesi.
We then meet Willa as a college student, heading home for Easter break with her boyfriend, the aggressive and confident Derek MacIntyre. Derek wants to marry her and move her to San Diego with him, insisting she can finish her studies there, but her professor is encouraging her to pursue a doctorate in linguistics anthropology after she graduates, which means staying put, and she’ll only agree to a long engagement. Derek’s self-centeredness only seems to encourage Willa’s singleness, until her combative mother disagrees with the engagement.
Willa has two sons – high school senior Sean and fifteen-year-old Ian – when we reconnect with her in the 90s. While Sean and Derek have a personal rivalry, Ian is aimless at school, and wants to take a year off to ‘meet the people’, his interest in astronomy prompting a meaningful encounter with the Hale Bopp comet. When Derek causes a tragedy, Willa has to deal with her now-distant relationship with Elaine, who has become a chemist and chooses to dwell on their mother’s abuse while Willa would rather forget it – and her father’s aging. She tries to adjust to widowhood, while dealing with the attention of a man who was also involved with Derek’s accident.
In 2017 and now in her sixties, Willa lives in retirement in Arizona and comes to another crossroads.Sean has recently broken up with his wife Brenda – a woman with a daughter from a previous relationship – and taken up with her best friend, the not-yet divorced-either Elissa. When Brenda is shot in the leg by a mysterious assailant, Willa gets called in by Brenda’s neighbor to take care of the girl – named Cheryl – and Cheryl and Brenda’s new dog, Airplane. Willa is uncertain at first – her executive boyfriend, Peter infantilizes her and undermines her choices – but the two of them pack up and fly out to Maryland anyway.
In Cheryl, Willa sees a fatherless child yearning for a male figure in her life that calls out to the motherless girl she once was. She, Brenda and Cheryl soon form a real family that gives her a sense of purpose. But when she learns the identity of Brenda’s shooter and that Cheryl knows the shooter’s identity too, their secret-keeping might break up their happy home.
Clock Dance is classic late-period Tyler in a lot of ways, some of them good, others bad. A lot of the themes explored in the book will be familiar to long-term readers , as h er usual tropes show up; well-meaning, downtrodden middle-aged women trying to thrash their way through the disappointments of life while being largely ignored by their loving families; a sudden character death; multi generational alienation; aimless, wayward sons who like to roam and leave behind adorable illegitimate grandchildren and the persistent ache of widow/widowerhood.
While the novel suffers fairly heavily from episodic fits and starts due to the long gaps between the years it covers, thankfully Clock Dance is much more readable than Tyler’s last release, A Spool of Blue Thread, mostly because we stay with Willa and in her headspace instead of hopping between generations and characters.
That isn’t to say that the characters aren’t heavily flawed, and oh can this book be frustrating! One yearns to shake Willa out of her torpor, out of her meek choice to let others define her, and force her to make a decision and a rebellious choice that’s firm and confident, to get angry! The long time jumps require broad anecdotal set pieces that force us to buy Willa’s romanticization of her husband and sons; whenever the characters are together their on-page behavior is truly appalling. Willa is filled with guilt and anger, yet is always spoken over – by her sons, by Derek, by Peter. The narrative notices this and it is ultimately her character arc to become independent and self-directed, but so much of the novel happens to Willa instead of her directing its action herself.
Of the minor characters, the irrepressible Cheryl is terrific, as is Willa’s father. The charactersation of her sons are flat, and Ian might as well not exist at all in the novel, for the little he influences its prose (he never has any dialogue at all).
Yet this is such a compelling story, especially the bookending chapters – indeed, I would have rather skipped over Willa’s marriage entirely in favor of more of her childhood years. Those sections are interesting, layered and nuanced, and I couldn’t stop reading, even as I wished that Willa would just develop a backbone and kick a little verbal butt.
Clock Dance will likely bring up similar mixed feelings in many readers – but it is worth giving it a chance.
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