Like many of us, Anne Tyler’s Willa Drake has experienced a mostly unremarkable life. She did what one does: grew up, went to college, got married, had kids, gave up things she loved, suffered loss.
Now she has landed in a safe but dull middle age in Arizona, shaped by advice from her aging father. How has he survived his own darkest hours? “I broke my days into separate moments,” he tells her. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.”
Willa isn’t sure random moments are enough, but, you know, she has things to do. Her headbands need sorting. Her fretful husband will be back from his golf game soon, and he’ll want to be fed. (Eleven years older, he calls her “little one.” This is really all you need to know about him.) Tepid responsibilities fill her days. So she makes allowances for the remoteness of her two grown sons, who are in no hurry to provide her with grandchildren, and stifles the desire for something more.
Then she gets one of those life-changing phone calls that seem to happen only in fiction, one that sends her off to Baltimore to take care of a little girl she’s never met, who isn’t even family. But family, Tyler assures us, can be defined in many ways. What’s important isn’t how we’re connected by blood. What’s important is how we’re connected by heart.
“Clock Dance” is Tyler’s 22nd novel, and it’s immediately identifiable as her work. This is not a condemnation: Tyler has been examining the quirks of American domestic life with insight and humor for decades. Her novels, which include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Breathing Lessons,” are funny and warm but also shrewd in the way they reflect our maddening, imperfect lives.
The opening chapters explore scenes from Willa’s youth and young adulthood, but like Willa, the novel blossoms only once the story lands in Baltimore, a city that Tyler has staked out as her own. She’s at home in the shabby but close-knit neighborhoods, where neighbors may grumble but still look out for one another. It’s a fading American dream, and reading Tyler’s depiction of it feels as comforting as coming home.
The question of whether Willa will return to Arizona provides no real mystery. What drives the novel are Tyler’s wonderfully direct and evocative character sketches and dialogue that flows with grace and humor, deceptive in its simplicity. Like all her books, “Clock Dance” is unfussy but generous. And if it’s somewhat less substantial than her rich and glorious family saga “A Spool of Blue Thread,” well, its heart is in the right place. We don’t have to settle for mere moments, Tyler tells us. Everything we want is right here. We just have to open our eyes, look and leap.
Connie Ogle is a writer and critic in Florida.
By: Anne Tyler.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 292 pages, $26.95.