Clock Dance

"Clock Dance" by Anne Tyler

CLOCK DANCE. By Anne Tyler. Knopf. 292 pages. $26.95.

In her 22nd novel, "Clock Dance," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler returns to the subject of family. Throughout her prolific career, Tyler has been writing about ordinary families struggling with ordinary, everyday experiences in her extraordinary style. Her latest novel spans 50 years and follows Willa Drake from childhood to late adulthood, and from the home she’s given to one she creates for herself.

We are first introduced to Willa in 1967 when she’s 11 years old. Her mother has just run off after a fight with her father, and Willa is left to take care of her younger sister, Elaine. The sisters get off the school bus at the end of the day and approach the house with trepidation.

“It was hard to tell from the front of the house whether anyone was inside. True, the windows were dark, but it was daytime, after all. ... In the foyer, there was a ticking silence. In the living room the only motion was the stirring of a curtain hem above the radiator. ‘She’s not here,’ Elaine said in that small voice of hers.”

In brief glimpses we learn about the "flare ups" of Willa’s mother and her unpredictability cruelty (“the time she slammed a serving spoon across Willa’s cheekbone and gave her a black eye”), actions which shape the paths her daughters take as they become women.

By 1977, Willa has left home for college. There, she meets Derek, a California boy who is a year ahead of Willa, and in a hurry to get married. Tyler’s subtle humor is in evidence as she writes about Willa's trip home with Derek to introduce him to her parents.

As she points out to him the various places where she spent time as a child, she mentions the house where she took clarinet lessons from a woman who ran off with a married man. Derek says he didn’t know she played the clarinet, and Willa stops mid-sentence to stare at him. “Oh, boys were such foreigners. (Not for the first time, she wished she’d had a brother or two.) A girl would have begged for every detail about Mrs. Carroll’s running off.”

Darkness follows with Derek’s sudden death in 1997. Willa’s father, himself a widower, suggests she break her day into small moments to ease the grief.

“Her father’s suggestion about breaking her life into moments didn’t work for her, it turned out. Although she did keep trying. But what helped more was to walk down a crowded sidewalk sometimes, or through a busy shopping mall, and reflect that almost everyone there had suffered some terrible loss. Sometimes more than one loss. Many had lost their dearest loves, but look at them: They were managing. They were putting one foot in front of the other. Some were even smiling. It could be done.”

In Part II (2017), Willa receives a phone call that inspires her to fly from her home in Arizona, where she lives with her second husband, Peter, to Baltimore. There, she ends up taking care of a girl named Cheryl, whose mother is in the hospital. Willa jumps head-first into the warmth and chaos of the community. Her sons have grown up and moved out and here, she is needed. “Somehow, Willa’s stay in Baltimore had stretched on without her noticing. The guest room had acquired the settled, slightly shabby feeling of home; the people she met on her morning walk greeted her with a smile.”

Tyler’s observations, slipping seamlessly into described moments or conversations, are part of what make her an influential and beloved writer. When Peter asks Cheryl whether she has any friends, and Cheryl tells him she’s more grown up than she seems, Willa knows what she means. “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 11 years old was still gazing out at the world.”

Haven’t we all felt that way before? Like a child inside an adult body wondering where to go next? In "Clock Dance," Tyler leads readers on a journey through crowded sidewalks, surrounded by people figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other.

Reviewer Amy Mercer is a writer in Charleston.