Our novel for November is Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, chosen by Margaret. Born in Minnesota, US, in 1941, Tyler is one of the best-loved and respected writers around. She has written 23 novels, three of which have been short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize and Breathing Lessons won the Prize in 1989. Clock Dance is her 22nd novel and was published in 2018.
Here’s what our members thought of the book:
I have always been a fan of Tyler’s writing. Her unique talent is to convey, with tenderness and empathy, an insight into the different ways in which we conduct our lives. Individuals, families or groups of people spring off the page to meet the reader in Tyler’s work. In the most famous of her books, there are characters who, once met, are never forgotten. For example, meticulous Macon, in The Accidental Tourist who can reduce his routine wash load by showering in his pyjamas; ever-optimistic Ezra in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, who constantly devises lavish dinners for his family, none of which ever comes to a proper conclusion, and warm-hearted Maggie in Breathing Lessons, whose lovingly plotted plans for others, again, never quite work out. Several of these books, have been made into successful films.
This 22nd novel, set in Baltimore, may not achieve that level of success, but it nonetheless demonstrates Tyler’s range of intensely alive characters. In particular, she shows her deep understanding of the internal life of an ‘ordinary woman’ in Willa, the central character of Clock Dance. The initial part of the book shows how Willa’s life has been governed by four particular stages: her erratic, emotional and unreliable mother; her engagement and marriage to Derek; her time as a mother; and the death at 43, of Derek, leaving her a widow. When she eventually marries Peter, her second husband, he turns out to be not unlike Derek in his predictability and self-centredness. It seems that Willa’s life has been governed by being of service and of achieving a level of almost welcome anonymity in the process.
However, the action picks up when Willa, at 61, and leading a comfortable, but dull life with Peter, receives an unexpected phone call from a woman who claims to be the neighbour of Willa’s daughter-in-law, actually, her son’s ex-girlfriend, and her 9-year-old daughter. She tells Will that Denise, the soi-disant daughter-in-law, has been shot in the leg, and that Cheryl, assumed to be her grand-daughter needs looking after urgently. Willa, being used to being imposed upon, and of being of use, does not question the call, assumes that her son is the father of Cheryl, although in fact that is not true, and jumps into action. She flies, with a reluctant Peter, to Baltimore and, despite finding that the scenario is murkier and more complex than that, rolls up her sleeves and sets out to help this new household. She forges a good relationship with Cheryl, a sturdily independent child, who, nonetheless, bonds happily with the natural warmth of Willa. Her hectic mother, laid up in hospital, is grateful. The surrounding community of neighbours, which includes a needy teenage boy, a winsome dog, a retired doctor, and various eccentric and typical Tyler characters, welcome Willa with open arms. Tyler’s skill with dialogue is instrumental in bringing this second half of the book to life.
Willa begins to blossom into the responsible, active and positive person she really is. Her life has moved at last onto a fifth stage of involvement and mutual appreciation, which is now leavened by her relationship with Cheryl. It is Cheryl who introduces Willa to the idea of the Clock Dance a game she plays with her friends. Two girls stand behind a third, moving and stopping like a living clock. Willa begins to see her own life – rather late at 61 – as one in which she whirls from stage left to right, in a race against time.
In her race, she comes to understand the complex factors that led to the shooting of Denise and helps the troubled teenager next door, who accidentally precipitated the accident. She finds a small measure of rapport with one of her sons. Quietly, she sees that she has a place in the community. She has been taken to its heart. Some of the most touching aspects of Willa’s story are those parts where she is privy to the philosophical musings of the elders around her. ‘What do we live for?’, they are asking each other. Some advocate appreciating the small matters of life, a cup of coffee in the morning, the sun, small, regular tasks and duties, but Willa has come to realise that she has needed to use her skills, she has needed a grandchild, she needs to be used up before it is too late. All this she has begun to achieve.
Sadly, all idylls have come to an end, and when Willa has to accept that she is required to go back home to Pete, as any dutiful wife should, she packs with a heavy heart and sets out to the airport. We have all stood in line at airport desks … as Willa does here … But wait. This is an Anne Tyler book, and although it has been criticised for some issues of pace and plot in this book, we cannot ever fault Tyler for psychological truth. So – what does Willa do when she reaches the desk?
(Tyler’s final sentences often throw a warm light back onto a book for me.)
I liked the title which is the name of a child’s clock game and is also a metaphor for the main protagonist, Willa’s whirl through the different stages of her life from childhood to middle age. Part One covers five decades, starting in 1967 when she is aged eleven and her sister aged six. Part Two is from 2017 deals with her passage to self-realisation.
In the first decade, which I found the best part of the novel, there are problems dealing with their vivacious but capricious and sometimes violent mother who on occasions impulsively leaves the home for several days. There are poignant descriptions of the little family trying to cope: their father’s grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner which ‘were all he knew how to make’ and the three of them sitting together on the sofa with their father’s arms draped around them. Her descriptions of people and of children in particular are so perceptive.
The decade starting in 1977 sees Willa at college and in a relationship with Derek who comes from a different and wealthy background. He wants to sweep her into marriage without real consideration for her wishes regarding her career. She has a frightening incident on the plane when they travel to visit her parents but Derek minimises the episode when they later discuss it with her parents. Despite her and her parents’ misgivings, Willa decides to go ahead with the marriage. At this stage I felt that Willa was the author of her own misfortune by giving up her potential career to be with Derek.
Twenty years later, married with two sons to her high achieving, corporate husband on the freeway to business associate swim party, Derek becomes enraged with another driver, cuts in front of that car and is killed in the ensuing accident. Having lost her anchor in Derek she felt very vulnerable. She was living in a part of the country that was alien to her, her sons were gradually drifting away, and she had not continued with her own career. She found living alone difficult and without real meaning. Her widowed father said what helped him with this problem was by breaking his day into separate moments: ‘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’- wonderful!
In Part Two, it is 2017 and Willa is remarried to a successful, pedantic, semi-retired business man called Peter whose name for her is ‘Little one’!! [Why does she do this?]. She receives a phone call from a stranger informing her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot in the leg and decides to fly across the country to help. Peter initially accompanies her but later returns whilst Willa stays on and forms a very strong bond with Denise and her nine-year-old daughter Cheryl. She gradually becomes more involved with the rest of the community. Willa comes to understand that she has a place and a role in this community and the outcome of this self-realisation is that she decides not to return to Peter. I loved the author’s descriptions of the different characters, especially the children, but I found this second part a bit drawn out.
I’ve long been a fan of Anne Tyler since Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which was published in 1982 when my daughter was two. I say this as I’ve always remembered the main character talking about having so much anxiety after her first child that she thought having a second would lessen the anxiety – but instead found she just had twice as much! Don’t we all know that feeling with our children?
Anyway, I used to read all Tyler’s novels, though haven’t for a while, so was looking forward to reading Clock Dance, published in 2018 (she’s just published a new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road). However, I was hugely disappointed.
Tracing Willa’s life from age 11 in 1967, it moves quite quickly through various decades of her life in the first half of the book to 2017 when she’s 61. In the first decade, Willa’s mother disappears for a few days (which she does a lot) and this is one of the defining moments of Willa’s life. Willa has to cope with her father, who whistles his way through trying to seem normal, and her annoying younger sister Elaine. Thus begins a life of putting others first. A poignant moment is when Willa remembers her mother singing ‘Down in the Valley’: ‘It was such a lonesome song that it made Willa ache just to hear it now in her mind.’ More heart-rending are memories of her mother’s more volatile and violent moods when she’d shout at Willa’s father and ‘slap Willa in the face … or shake Elaine like a Raggedy Ann’. Later, she makes two disastrous marriages and as a reader you wonder how on earth she could like these men. While it’s a typical path after an abusive, dysfunctional childhood such as Willa’s, somehow Tyler didn’t make it a believable or empathetic for me. So much seemed like devices for supporting the bare bones of a story.
I felt the first half of the book was more a rushed attempt to create a background without much depth and I found it impossible to engage well with Willa or her story. I found it painful to read, and sometimes that can be a good thing in a book, but my feeling was more exasperation than feeling moved. By the halfway mark, I really didn’t want to read on and turned to look at reviews. Was it me? Was I missing something? But the Guardian reviewer was similarly disappointed and writes of ‘several false notes in what starts to be a rather irksomely homely kind of novel’. Perhaps it wasn’t good timing that I’d just finished reading two other middle-American, small-town novels by Sue Miller, which were wonderful and then the Anne Tyler just didn’t do it for me.
If there was ever a case for persisting with a book when it doesn’t have any immediate appeal, this is it. Initially it looked very unpromising – a tale of apparent maternal abandonment featuring the hapless offspring – in a word bleak. So it was with some trepidation that I started Clock Dance and happily my expectations were confounded.
The book really takes off in the second half and becomes a feel-good novel with engaging characters and an interesting storyline. I found myself intrigued by someone giving up their time (and persuading their spouse to) flying across several states to look after a child they have no connection or obligation. Willa, the protagonist, does this effectively and with a degree of enjoyment and, when the time comes, bows out gracefully. The experience has been a positive one and introduces her to contemporary young person’s worldview. One gripe though, the last paragraph of the novel is an unnecessary tease – whether or not this is a pivot to new things in Willa’s life is beside the point. What is this passion for tidying up a storyline? – I like a writer who can leave a few loose ends, but I realise that is just personal taste.
This is not a tempestuous novel with lots of ‘Ah yes’ moments but a quiet gentle one with insightful characterisation which has led me to ponder the worth of lives spent fitting in with others. Willa and her father before her seem excessively meek but their constancy and willingness to put themselves out for others enables the more flamboyant livers of life.
It’s a satisfying read and when I finished the endearing characters (Willa and Cheryl) inhabited my mind for a day or so as I didn’t want to let them go and for me that’s the definition of a good read.
Thank you, Margaret, for suggesting a thoroughly enjoyable book by Anne Tyler. I didn’t think it was one of her best but nevertheless a really good read, particularly for our present way of life; I was completely immersed.
I liked Willa but there were times I’m sure she must heard me shouting ‘No, no, don’t do it’ or ‘I don’t think so’. But, of course, that was her character, particularly marrying two similar men, both wrong for her, but she’s not me. She finishes up in places where she doesn’t fit, although she doesn’t know where that would be.
I thought it was very sad that such a good, kind, gentle, intelligent woman’s relatives weren’t interested in seeing or hearing anything about her, let alone meet, particularly her sons. Probably the Gandhi in her. The very sad paragraph – ‘She noticed a man walking toward her in the distance, a fair-haired man in short-sleeved shirt and khakis, and at first she merely registered his approach, but then some jaunty quality in his gait tugged at her and she stopped short. It was Sean [her son]. It was dear, familiar Sean, thirty-eight years old now and completely at home in a strange town’ – was so beautifully, sensitively written, it worth reading the book just for that!
All those different-to-her people do value her, possibly because she is different-to- them. When Ben said, ‘I’ve always meant to tell you that I like the way you look at people’ and Willa ‘felt a twinge of disappointment’ and ‘she had fancied that he’d been going to say he liked the way she looked, period’. Her sister had rejected the awful shallow judgement of appearance; maybe they’d get to know each other if she goes back, I do hope she goes back or even elsewhere.
One of the great things about book groups is getting different reactions to a book and discussing different thoughts. We hope you’ve enjoyed our reviews – if you’ve read Clock Dance do please let us know what you thought of it in Comments below.