Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler, narrated by Kimberly Farr
The fateful day in 1967, when Alice Drake, in a state of angry frustration, decides to leave her husband Melvin, and her two children Willa and Elaine, 11 and 6 respectively, making them latchkey kids, temporarily, is a turning point in their lives. Willa’s mom was sometimes emotionally unstable and physically abusive. This was an example of her compulsive, sometimes irrational behavior. Willa’s dad, a shop teacher, at the Garrettville High School, was the more stable, patient and serene parent. Willa looks up to him. The whole family, however, suffers from her mother’s thoughtless, uncontrolled rage.
The years pass, and the book picks up in 1977, with little discussion of what occurred in the intervening years. Willa is now in college. She is on her way home to Lark City, Pa, with her boyfriend Derek. Willa’s mom has another of her uncontrolled, angry outbursts when they discuss their future plans, and it too has its consequences on their futures. Willa declares her independence, but contrary to that declaration, she seems to live her own life subsuming her needs to the needs of others, always smoothing out the wrinkles of life.
Once again, the years pass, and it is now 1997. Willa is 41. She and Derek have two teenaged children, Sean and Ian. Like Willa and her sister, both of their children are different from each other. While driving and discussing them, Derek, sometimes prone to losing his temper, becomes angry at a driver. Soon road rage has its own consequences. Their whole family suffers from the effects of that anger.
In 2017, without much background information, we find Willa, now 61, with an empty nest, living in Arizona with her second husband, Peter, a man who is more than a decade older than she. He is rather stodgy, but like Derek, he takes care of her and infantilizes her somewhat, making her feel as safe as she did with her father. Women make her more uneasy since her mom was so volatile.
Most of the story begins now with an unusual phone call from Callie Montgomery, a neighbor of her son Sean’s former girlfriend Denise. Denise has been shot in a freak situation and Callie is charged with taking care of her 9 year old daughter, Cheryl, and their dog, Airplane. Callie was overwhelmed, being a working woman who never had children. She found Willa’s phone number on the fridge and took a chance calling her, assuming she was the grandmother, which she was not. Nevertheless, she enlisted her help, and although totally unrelated to any of them in any way, Willa, yearning to be needed again, feeling useless, purposeless and unnecessary, decides to go to Baltimore to help out. Peter decides to accompany her when he fails to persuade her to change her mind. He feels she is not independent enough to handle the strain and stress of the trip, and she agrees, glad for his help. She is somewhat needy and tentative, insecure and uncertain about being alone. Willa’s transformation over the following weeks is the main theme of the story, I believe. She, at such a late stage, finally comes of age.
As Anne Tyler examines the consequences of certain actions and reactions in each of the character’s lives and follows how their futures evolve, the reader watches them make decisions that are often not well thought out. They are often selfish and cruel, mindless and foolish. Still, each decision can quite possibly be traced back to a previous incident in their lives which affected the formation of their character and made him/her, who or what they become.
Willa sought men like her father, men who embodied what she believed was serenity, good judgment, and strength, men who could protect her. She regarded women like her mother warily. They frightened her. She herself made few waves and always sought the quiet, careful, least objectionable response to all situations. She rarely lost her temper. Her children grew up with the character traits of both she and her husband and were also formed by their experiences, sometimes as a result of being misunderstood at the time they occurred, or because their needs were ignored at that time. Many of the characters had anger management issues as well as inordinately selfish needs without the concomitant sense of gratitude for what they received from others. At the end, as Willa imagined the scene around her at the airport, frozen in time, many of the characters in the book are frozen in times, as well. As we move from time period to time period with little explanation about their intervening years and experiences, the reader is left to their own devices and imagination regarding that missing time and its future effects.
The clock dance that Cheryl refers to is slow and in syncopated time; the one that Willa prefers marches onward, fast forwarding into a world where anything is possible. From wanting to maintain the status quo, she begins to want to live, no longer biding her time, but making use of it.
Anne Tyler’s books always have a hidden, quietly stressed, profound message, and this one is no different, although it is a bit thinner in context than others she has written. She seems to leave open spaces in the narrative deliberately, so that the reader can fill them in. In the end, Tyler examines all of life’s possibilities, and although there is some question as to how Willa will live out the rest of her life, adrift or attached to the mainland, it is reasonably predicted by her last thoughts that she is going forward.
Possibly, in the need to make the book part of the current day philosophy of liberals and progressives, of which authors are great in number, Tyler inserts race, mental illness, drugs, sex, crime and infidelity into the narrative in a sometimes contrived and minor way. Some of the characters seem like caricatures of themselves, i.e. the strong man Sir Joe, the nerdy Erland, the Marcus Welby image of a doctor, Ben, the lonely single life and the desire to be independent as in the overweight, self absorbed Callie Montgomery and the selfish ways of a possibly resentful, unexpectedly pregnant and pretty much unwilling young mother, Denise. She calls into question the art of judging people by appearances and not actuality.
In short, the novel is good story that analyzes relationships, ordinary and dysfunctional, examines family dynamics and explores the experiences and choices of the sometimes, somewhat quirky characters. It is tender, at times, and it is authentic in its insight into the minds of children and troubled adults. No one escapes the consequences of life’s choices, even when inadvertent.