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Clock Dance

July 17, 2018

The pleasure of a new Anne Tyler novel and a Saturday afternoon to read it in remains undiminished, as has her ability to depict the struggles of her female characters with their sense of identity versus their family life. Pearl Tull, from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, was a warning to me before I ever had children, and now Willa Drake, the baby boomer protagonist of Clock Dance, is an illustration of a path not taken. Her choices–to keep marrying and looking for children to nurture—make me think of something Ron said to me when my kids left home for college and I was casting about for new things to do. I was considering doing more volunteer work at the local animal shelter, and he said maybe I should think about whether I wanted to jump right back into wanting to feel needed all the time. It is something of a trap for mothers, to keep on wanting that feeling.

Willa is described as only four years older than I am, but she acts like one of the baby boomer generation, as she gives up finishing college to marry a boy one year older, she stays home with her sons, and after her first husband dies, when she has a job she likes (related to her college major) she gives it up to move to another state with a second husband.

We get three big slices of Willa’s life: one when she is eleven years old and living in Pennsylvania in 1967, another when she is living in California as the married mother of two teenaged sons in 1997, and the last–which comprises more than half the novel–when she is 61, living in Arizona, and remarried. It will surprise no one to find out that she leaves Arizona for Baltimore, where the rest of the novel takes place.

Because Tyler is good at making me identify with her characters by giving lots of details about the way they see things, I started to see things as Willa does when she is sitting with her younger sister in the school nurse’s office and hears orchestra practice starting in another room: “It was the ‘Stranger in Paradise’ melody, and the back-of-the-room boys always crooned ‘Take my hand, I’m a strange-looking parasite…’ till Mr. Budd tapped his baton against his music stand.” This reminds me of the way the boys in my high school trombone section would sing behind their mouthpieces at the back of the band room, until the conductor took special notice of what they were up to.

There’s a lot in the first section, when Willa is eleven, that seems overly dramatic to me, like the portrait Tyler is trying to paint of Willa’s mother. It seems not only exaggerated but almost entirely humorless of Willa’s future husband to compare her mother to Lady Macbeth, asking “who else would serve rabbit on Easter Sunday?” rather than assume it’s part of a pattern of trying to break out of the 1950’s housewife mold.

The time I identified with Willa most turned out to be more of a defining moment in her life than I thought it would be, having acted similarly too many times to count. Willa’s first husband, Derek, is driving aggressively and it’s making her nervous: “He braked violently as the station wagon appeared in front of them. Willa reached for the dashboard, more as a protest than anything else, since she was safely fastened into her seat belt.” I do this when Ron tailgates another car on the many two-lane rural highways around where we live.

Another place where I identified with her is when we see her trying to be a better mother by becoming the opposite of her own mother: “She had tried her best to be a good mother—which to her meant a predictable mother. She had promised herself that her children would never have to worry what sort of mood she was in; they would never peek into her bedroom in the morning to see how their day was going to go. She was the only woman she knew whose prime objective was to be taken for granted.” Although my efforts to be better by acting the opposite of my mother were mostly based around attitudes about food, it’s a familiar feeling.

Once Willa takes the big leap of the novel, however, I identify with her less. She responds to a call from the neighbor of her son’s former girlfriend by flying across the country and staying for weeks with the child of the former girlfriend. Because it’s an Anne Tyler novel, the child lives in a charming, close-knit neighborhood in Baltimore, and Willa becomes a part of the neighborhood.

Willa gradually learns how to do things for herself that the men in her life have always done for her, like driving in an unfamiliar city. She doesn’t do them well, at first, and I identified with the moment when she meets her son for dinner at a restaurant in his neighborhood which she has found on her own because they both tease a little about her fear of driving (which is well-founded, making the teasing poignant) and she thinks “already she was back in that hapless, dithery-mom role she’d been assigned when her sons reached their teens.” One of the few ways I’ve ever protested the dithery-mom role is when my kids started teasing me about how much I must love napkins because of how many I pick up at fast food places or highway rest stops. “Who do you think I got in the habit of getting extra napkins for?” I asked them.

The end of the novel is entirely predictable and yet it seems abrupt, the action taking place over the course of a few moments, described in one short paragraph on the very last page. Just because I can identify with a character and see where she’s going to end up doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see more of what Willa is thinking, how she is finally able to break out of the roles she’s let others assign to her.

The title is not a mystery; it’s plain that some people get older without ever really growing up, and others take a step outside the dance in order to see where they’re headed and what kind of person they want to be when they get there. So much showing with too little telling keeps what seemed like the final straw to Willa a bit of a mystery, however.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2018 3:33 pm

    Ron is a smart one, for sure. I know a lot of people haven’t liked Willa but I found I could identify with her. I think women do like to be needed but, honestly, sometimes I’m so very tired of it.

    • July 20, 2018 9:10 pm

      Willa wants so much to be a grandmother, to go on playing that same kind of role with another generation. It’s an easy thing to want and (much like dedicating your life to your career can be) it’s a temptation, to just go on doing more of what you’ve gotten good at.

  2. July 17, 2018 6:00 pm

    Loved your reflections on this one – I haven’t read it yet but I will one day. I’ve still got some of her older ones I haven’t yet gotten to. She is always a pleasure to read even when her characters do things that drive me nuts.

    • July 20, 2018 9:11 pm

      I agree. Her characters almost always do something that drives me nuts, but they seem all the more real for that.

  3. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    July 18, 2018 2:58 pm

    Very interesting review. I will almost certainly read Clock Dance because I always read Anne Tyler, but it sounds like it will let me down a bit too, as many of her recent novels have. (I was just rereading Ladder of Years, which remains one of my favorites, mostly because when my kids were little I used to fantasize about the little empty room its heroine runs away to.) I’m also very struck by the comment about wanting to be needed all the time. I’ve been thinking too about volunteering as my parenting work recedes (at least in its immediate responsibilities) but I see the point about taking a little time to get reoriented.

    • July 20, 2018 9:14 pm

      Yes, reoriented and maybe a little more selfish. We did adopt another cat, but instead of volunteering at the shelter more (which makes me want to take them all home all the time) I took violin lessons and got into fiddling, which is a whole new thing.
      I don’t remember much about Ladder of Years. Maybe I should reread it and see if I like it better now.

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