Willa Drake—the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Clock Dance—is a self-defeating, self-effacing wimp.
Tyler divided Willa’s story into two parts. The first part consists of three situations in which Willa made self-defeating, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot, type choices.
When she is eleven years old, Willa rejects both her parents in a prolonged pre-teen pout. It’s easy to see why she rejects her mother: she’s a moody person who sometimes leaves her family to fend for themselves, and then returns pretending that nothing has happened. Willa’s anger at her mild-mannered, even-tempered father, is harder to fathom. She seems to deliberately take offense at something he says in an effort to comfort her while her mother is gone. The reader is left to wonder the real reason she gets angry and refuses his love. Is it because he is too passive to confront her mother? Because he goes along with the pretense that everything is fine? Or is it because he doesn’t take seriously Willa’s effort to fill the gap?
By the time she is 21, Willa is so far gone that when the passenger on one side of her in a jet airplane threatens her life with a gun, she doesn’t react in any way. She doesn’t scream; she doesn’t question the guy about what he wants; she doesn’t alert her boyfriend on the other side of her; she doesn’t alert the stewardess who comes by. Her will is paralyzed. When she later tells her boyfriend, he is incredulous and discounts her story.
She and her boyfriend, Derek Macintyre, are flying to visit her parents because Derek wants to marry her. Where Willa is weak, Derek is willful and assertive. Willa wants to wait until she has finished college, but he wants to marry in the summer coming up and move to California to start his career. His plans are more important to him than her plans, which he discounts. Toward the end of their week-end visit, he announces their engagement to her parents. Her mother says all the right things: she points out that he isn’t looking at Willa’s side of things and what Willa would have to give up for him. And she particularly notes that Derek had brushed off Willa’s story of being threatened on the airplane, because it shows how he disrespects her. Derek confronts her mother in a way that her father never could, and calmly tells her off. Instead of being strengthened by her mother’s support, Willa reacts against it, and against her own best interests, by giving into Derek.
After 20 years of predictable life with Derek—giving up college to raise two sons, being the sort of dependable mom she wishes her mother had been—Willa is suddenly left to her own devices when Derek is killed in an accident caused by his own road rage. She feels helpless and incompetent, which is the way he had always treated her. She begins to wonder about the purpose of life, or simply ‘why bother?’ She had always wanted to be so reliable that her sons could take her for granted, but now she finds that being taken for granted is not very satisfying. She still longs for someone to take care of her, and to boss her around.
The real story, Part II, starts when Willa is 61 years old, and it opens with a call to another life, an offer she can’t refuse. It takes the form of a phone call from someone who mistakenly assumes that Willa is the grandmother of an 8-year-old girl whose mother had been shot in the leg, in her neighborhood in Baltimore. She wants Willa to take care of the girl, Cheryl, while her mother, Denise, is in the hospital. Willa is now married to Peter, who is the same type as Derek, and is living the same arid retirement life in Arizona that she would have had with him. Uprooted from her world in California, Willa feels her life is meaningless and boring. When she hears of a child in need of a grandma, she can’t resist the temptation to play the role. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she spontaneously makes a major decision, without consulting Peter, and books her flight to Baltimore. Her bid for independence is somewhat muted by his decision to accompany her, condescendingly assuming she can’t handle the flight by herself.
Peter is fairly helpful, or at least non-interfering, but his attention is still on his own world, his business associates and golf buddies. Willa adapts to her role as grandmother, which includes adapting to a colorful cast of characters in the poor but respectable neighborhood where Cheryl and Denise live. She becomes so engrossed in her new life that she barely notices when Peter goes back to his world in Arizona. Meanwhile she is developing self-reliance—learning to drive a strange car around a strange town, learning to make decisions and choices on her own, learning to appreciate ‘everyday people,’ learning, for the first time, to enjoy the absence of a man to dominate her life. And the reader keeps thinking she ought to go back to her husband. Or should she?
My usual preference is for novels that are intellectually challenging, with a difficult vocabulary and complicated sentences, with big ideas and heavy drama. But sometimes I need a vacation from all that, and then I turn to Anne Tyler. Clock Dance is her 21st novel, and I have read about half of them. Her themes are positive and life-affirming, but her stories don’t reek of sentimentality and preachiness because her style is so spare and understated. It’s like Quaker wood furniture—functional but not fancy, well-crafted but plain. Tyler is generous with homely detail and engaging minor characters, but she is spare in her depiction of Willa’s inner life. By leaving a lot unsaid, she forces the reader to use their imagination.
For me, Anne Tyler is consistently good, but never great. But that’s okay. It’s like simple home cooking compared to gourmet meals—sometimes that’s just what I need.
Author: Anne Tyler
Publication Date: July 2018
Contributor: Jan Looper Smith writes about her culture experiences for a blog called “In the Loop.”