‘Willa noticed that another emotion she was experiencing was happiness.’ – Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

August 31, 2018 at 2:14 pm (Book review, books)

  The main character in Clock Dance is Willa Drake – or more precisely, Willa Drake MacIntyre – and finally there’s a second husband Peter, whose last name eludes me, by which she’s ultimately known.

We first encounter Willa as an energetic, ambitious eleven-year-old selling candy bars – or trying to sell them – to her neighbors in Lark City, Pennsylvania. (My immediate first thought was, Pennsylvania? But what about ‘Bawlamer?” I counsel patience,  Dear Reader. All will be revealed in time.)

My initial fear was that we’ll be  stuck in candy bar selling mode for a protracted period. It was a bit too sweet for me. But no, things moved along quickly – very quickly. I don’t want to be any more specific; to do so would mean straying into spoiler country. I will say this, though: Never was  the swift passage of time made to seem more inevitable and more poignant than it does here. There’s a sense of being carried along on the tide of events, and of being only minimally in control of how those same events unfold.

Tyler’s wonderful sense of humor is in evidence in this novel. In recounting for Willa the view from the middle seat on his last plane trip, Peter narrates the doings of the amply proportioned woman sitting in the aisle seat:

….the minute she got settled she dug into this giant tote that was crowding my feet and brought out a foot long salami sub with enough onions to kill a horse…and twice before they turned the seat belt sign off she pressed her call button to ask when drinks were going to be served, and when finally the cart showed up she ordered two Bloody Marys–this was before most people’s breakfast time, mind–and an extra pack of snack mix. Snack mix! Ha. Which was no food known to nature, believe me; some kind of crackerish objects coated with sidewalk salt. After the sub she dug out a slice of Boston cream pie wrapped in a sheet of wax paper that kept blowing off her tray into my lap because of course she had her overhead fan on….

And on it goes. You get the idea.

The warmth of the author’s wit offers a nice counterbalance to the overall air of melancholy that pervades this tale – indeed, that pervades most of the novels I’ve read by her. Accidental Tourist, the Pulitzer-winning Breathing Lessons, Ladder of Years, Digging to America, and my first and still favorite by her, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Oh how she broke my heart with that one!

Tyler possesses a nice sense of irony, as in the scene where Willa passes almost instantaneously from vacillation to certitude regarding the question of marriage to Derek (the husband of her youth and the father of her sons). Much later, a sudden disaster in her life seems, in retrospect, inevitable. (Most of us experience at least one of these in a lifetime. I’m reminded of what Evelyn Waugh remarked when after fifteen months of marriage, his wife left him for another man: “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable & live but I am told that this is a common experience.”)

A hoped for reciprocal warmth in her relationship with sons Ian and Sean never quite comes up to the mark. This in no way diminishes her maternal adoration of  them. I had to smile when I read  this sentence:

Willa was experiencing one of those rapt moments that often overcame her in the presence of her sons.

(Oh, thought I, so that happens to other people too….)

I love it when a character notices at a particular moment that he or she is experiencing actual happiness. Take careful note of such moments, Tyler seems to be saying, take note of them, cherish them, treasure them up.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins….

Clock Dance was a fast and wonderful read. A great book group selection, also. I confess to being somewhat perplexed by the ending and would love to talk it over with someone.

Anne Tyler

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