Book Review – Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

books, reviews

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

After I finished Redhead by the Side of the Road the other week, I listened to a second Anne Tyler book. How did I pick it? It was available as an audiobook on my library app and it was shorter than A Spool of Blue Thread. I think that’s a pretty good way to pick a book. I’ll get around to A Spool of Blue Thread eventually but it’s just too long to finish in one workday. If I have to stretch a book over a few days then I lose the momentum. It’s much easier all around if I just finish one over the course of a day.

Clock Dance is a pretty classic Anne Tyler premise. She is a writer who is known for writing stories about ordinary people who are thrown out of their usual routine by seemingly insignificant moments. This time we meet Willa Drake, a 61-year-old woman who has spent her life being taken advantage of. When she was a child, she decided that it was her purpose in life to be amenable and she’s never changed her stance. It’s a consequence of having a mother who was flighty and unpredictable mixed with having a father who continued to make excuses for his wife. Clock Dance is sort of like a coming-of-age but that age is a little more mature than usual. When Willa gets a call from a stranger in Baltimore, she finds herself caring for her eldest son’s ex-girlfriend and her daughter. Despite having no connection to the woman or her child, Willa gets on a plane to Baltimore to babysit the girl while her mother recovers after being shot.

It sounds like a crazy thing for a woman to do, an opinion shared by Willa’s husband and son. The decision is the one thing that helps break Willa out of her rut. The world she enters couldn’t be more different from her own. It’s not something that her husband, Peter, can cope with but Willa finds herself envious of the people around her. Cheryl, the 9-year-old daughter, is a happy and precocious child who is an easy stand-in for the grandchildren Willa doesn’t yet have. Even when Peter returns home, Willa is unable to leave the affable community and stays in Baltimore alone. In doing so, she quickly discovers an independence that she has never really felt before. The young girl and her plain-spoken mother are just the people needed to bring the older woman out of her shell and stand up for herself.

So, it’s a pretty standard Anne Tyler novel and definitely features her trademark language and characters. She is an author who understands humans and the way they think. The majority of the people we meet in Baltimore are lovely and it’s easy to see why Willa doesn’t want to leave. By contrast, the people from her own family are less easy to love. The only problem was, I didn’t quite love this as much as her other books. There was something a bit off about the pacing in the Baltimore sections of the novel. As much as I love friendly chat between neighbours, it just went on a little too long. I was expecting something slightly bigger to happen. I’d even say that, had this been written earlier in Tyler’s career, the ending would have been more empowering.

It’s not to say that the book is bad but it is at its strongest in the opening few chapters. We only see snippets of Willa’s life before this phone call but they’re all interesting. The chapter set during Willa’s childhood is the most memorable. After Willa’s mother disappears, we see the young girl start to take on her role as dependable and cooperative. Her childhood home was always on the edge and the calm helped to hide the tension that lay underneath. Willa’s childhood was lonely and had a dark streak running through it. A streak that continues to run through Willa’s earlier life, right up to the moment of her first husband’s death. The early chapters of this book contain an edge that the later chapters lack. The sections set in Baltimore are much more sentimental.

This isn’t even a bad thing but it just feels a shame that there could have been a different novel hiding somewhere. It also means that when Willa eventually does change her life, it comes a bit too late in the day. The ending just isn’t as impactful as it could have been. I thoroughly enjoyed the book but Tyler has written stronger ones.

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