Novel paints rich, sometimes humorous, picture of family life

“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler; Knopf Publishing; July 2018; 304 pp; $26.95

By Ann Jonas
For The Visitor

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler’s ability to tell a great story using ordinary characters with flaws and doubts endears her to many readers. Her new novel, “Clock Dance,” is another fine story with great writing and entertaining dialogue.

In “Clock Dance,” Tyler gives us circumstances in three different decades that line up as defining periods in main character Willa Drake’s life, before arriving at the present.

The novel begins in 1967 when Willa is 11 years old. She and her younger sister are trying to cope with the disappearance of their mother, who has walked out without an explanation. The next section of the book skips ahead to 1977 when Willa is a junior in college and her boyfriend, who is a senior, proposes marriage and wants her to forgo her last year of college to move to California with him. Then, in 1997, she is a young widow with two teenage sons. Finally, the novel jumps to 2017; Willa lives in Arizona and has married Peter, a retired attorney.

While Peter is out golfing, Willa receives a phone call from a stranger in Baltimore who is a neighbor to Denise, an ex-girlfriend of Willa’s son. Denise has been shot in the leg and the neighbor asks Willa to come to Baltimore to take care of Denise’s 9-year-old daughter while Denise recuperates. The neighbor is under the false impression that Willa is the girl’s grandmother.

Like many of Tyler’s main characters, Willa is kind-hearted and not at all strong-minded, but she thinks it would be crazy to go to Baltimore. Within minutes, however, she reconsiders. Peter plays a lot of golf, her sons are both far away, and she left an ESL teaching job that she loved to move to Arizona with Peter. Willa has always been compliant and done what others have wanted her to do. She is, perhaps subconsciously, searching for some real meaning in her life. By the time Peter returns from his golf game, Willa has booked a flight to Baltimore.

When Willa and Peter (who decides to accompany her) arrive in Baltimore they settle into Denise’s home to stay with Cheryl, Denise’s daughter, while Denise is hospitalized. Willa meets a host of quirky neighbors and friends who make her life interesting and compel her to stay and help even though she has no blood ties to these people.

“Clock Dance” has an interesting plot that may seem a bit far-fetched to some readers. It works, though, due to Tyler’s extraordinary character development, descriptions and dialogue. She writes with such compassion and understanding, and her characters seem so human and realistic. Her depiction of family life and dynamics is skillful and rich and, quite often, humorous.

“Clock Dance” is another satisfying novel by Anne Tyler, who was born in Minneapolis in 1941. She grew up in North Carolina and has lived in Baltimore for many years. Tyler has written more than 20 novels, including “Breathing Lessons” for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

“Clock Dance” is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University Bookstores.

Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

About The Visitor

The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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