Clock Dance by Anne Tyler: Well…

A few years back I read a rare interview with Anne Tyler in which she described getting together with her lady friends of a certain age to watch The Wire and experience how some other Baltimore residents live. The gangs-and-drugs world of The Wire, of course, could hardly be more different from the safe semi-suburban spaces Tyler’s characters inhabit.

However, if you’ve heard one thing about Tyler’s new novel, Clock Dance, her twenty-second, I expect it’s that a character gets shot. Finally, a realistic look at the condition of Baltimore, I thought! To my frustration, though, Tyler does just what she did in her previous novel, the Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread, and immediately defuses what could have been a hot-button issue. Sure, her characters have dysfunctional family problems aplenty, but nothing ever gets too out of hand. So in Spool son Denny’s confession that he thinks he’s gay is never given serious consideration, and in Clock Dance the Chekhovian gun we (perhaps) encounter early on in the novel does indeed return to be used in the contemporary-set section, but – and I’m sorry if this strikes you as a spoiler – it’s only a shot in the leg, the result of some kids playing around with a gun, and the unwitting victim is fine.

Essentially Clock Dance is three stories followed by a short novel: glimpses into four periods of Willa Drake’s life. In 1967 she’s 11 and her angry mother Alice, who’s reminiscent of Pearl Tull from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, gets fed up and leaves – but soon comes back. (You see what I mean about dangling life-changing traumas in front of us but then instantly neutralizing them?) In 1977 Willa is a college junior and flies home over spring break to introduce her boyfriend to her parents. He wants her to give up her linguistic studies and join him in California, where he has a job. On to 1997, when Willa suddenly becomes a widow and has to learn to survive one day at a time. Fast forward to 2017, when the remarried Willa, now based in Arizona, gets a call informing her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot and she needs to come look after her and her daughter and dog in Baltimore.

It’s somewhat ironic that I just read Breathing Lessons earlier in the summer: Clock Dance is awfully similar to Tyler’s 1988 Pulitzer winner in that both protagonists are trying to make things right with their daughter-in-law and granddaughter figures. In Willa’s case, her son never married Denise and isn’t the father of nine-year-old Cheryl, but Willa still feels a grandmotherly concern and, as she seems to be the only person the neighbor knew to call in an emergency, she agrees to fly out with her second husband, a humourless retired lawyer and golfer named Peter. They will stay in Denise’s home on Dorcas Road in Baltimore for as long as she is in the hospital. Peter is impatient with the situation, but Willa feels purposeful for the first time in years, and before long she’s starting to think about Dorcas Road, with its lovably quirky set of neighbors, as home. Could she make her own useful life here?

Tyler is surprisingly good on modern children and technology, and there are some terrific individual scenes, like the fairly awkward dinner Willa has with her elder son, Sean, and Elissa, the woman he left Denise for. But at times the dialogue didn’t ring true for me, with some 1950s vocabulary like darn, gosh, pussyfoot, hoodlum, and jeepers, plus (I checked this in the Kindle book) a whopping 188 sentences start with some variation on “Well, …” That works out to more than once every other page, a tic Tyler’s editor should have ironed out.

The U.S. edition of Clock Dance, which features a cactus on the cover, tries to make more of the partial Arizona setting, though most of the book is set in Tyler’s familiar small-town Pennsylvania and Baltimore. Willa admires saguaro cacti – “She loved their dignity, their endurance” – and Peter also buys one from the hospital gift shop, as a sort of symbol of resilience and adaptation to one’s surroundings. The U.K. cover, by contrast, goes for nostalgic Americana and reminded me of this passage from Breathing Lessons:

(An early Tyler novel is called The Clock Winder, but I imagine the similarity in the titles is just incidental.)

The story behind the title: Cheryl and friends perform what they call a “clock dance,” wherein two girls stand behind a third and they all move their arms in rhythmic jerks like a clock face. Willa imagines her own ‘clock dance’ would be a mad whirl from stage left to right: a race against time. Her efforts to redirect her life before it’s too late are heartening, but overall I didn’t sense strong enough themes in this novel; in particular, I would have preferred if Tyler had been consistent in checking in with Willa every decade and making each vignette truly count.

Of the eight Tyler novels I’ve read so far, here’s how I’d rank them (from best to least good). You’ll see that this latest one falls somewhere in the middle.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

The Accidental Tourist

Breathing Lessons

Vinegar Girl

Clock Dance

Back When We Were Grown-ups

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

 


My rating:

Clock Dance is released in the UK today, July 12th, by Chatto & Windus and came out on the 10th from Knopf Doubleday in the USA. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

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20 thoughts on “Clock Dance by Anne Tyler: Well…

  1. I agree that A Blue Spool of Thread didn’t live up to its promise. Tyler seems to be an author who has already written her best work and doesn’t have a lot left to give. You haven’t tempted me.

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  2. I loved that image of Tyler sitting with her friends watching The Wire too. I enjoyed A Spool of Blue Thread much more than you, Rebecca, but I wonder from your review if she isn’t running out of steam.

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  3. I liked Spool a lot more than the two before but I think I’m going to need to go back and read everything in order again (I was going to wait until I’d finished Iris Murdoch but I don’t think I can!) as I love her earlier books so much. Oh – if I do the in-order thing in Sept I can probably make myself wait for the paperback of this one! Great review, anyway, and I’ll be looking forward to it still.

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  4. I sampled this the other day and wasn’t drawn in. So, am now waiting to see what others thinks. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  5. I’ve read eleven of her novels so am a fan but A Spool of Blue Thread was probably my least favorite and I must admit, I’m nervous to pick this one up. Perhaps, as Liz said, a reread of her older work would be better. Great review though Rebecca.

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  6. I’ve never been tempted to read Anne Tyler, maybe because my mom read her novels and to me they always sound old-fashioned. Not to say that this makes the stories’ setting untruthful–Baltimore County and Baltimore City might as well be worlds apart–but there seem to me to be writers who’ve done a better job staying current. Maybe this isn’t fair of me, because I haven’t really given her a chance. But this review hasn’t changed my preconception. Always appreciate your honest reviews!

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    1. There is a certain old-fashionedness to the dialogue, and especially the middle-aged and older female characters. I’ll sound like a broken record here, but I do recommend Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as an excellent novel in its own right. It has a more melancholy, bittersweet edge than a number of her books.

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  7. Ha, I love the title of this review XD After having to read Spool for Book Club last year I’ve come to the conclusion that I simply can’t be bothered with Anne Tyler (harsh). As you rightly say, nothing really HAPPENS, it’s all very safe and focuses on mediocre family ‘drama’, and I simply don’t care. Shame. Even the modern covers are dull.

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  8. I’d been really looking forward to this as I really enjoyed both Vinegar Girl and Spool ( though I’d agree that the best of Tyler’s books are Homesick Restaurant and Accidental Tourist!). So I’ll still buy it this weekend but think I’ll then leave it sitting on the pile for a bit to see what others make of it!

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  9. Well….some people just do repeat and repeat their verbal ticks (which is, I guess, what makes them ticks). 😀
    I’ve not read this one, but I’m looking forward to it. I simply expect Tyler to be Tyler and that’s worked for me so far. We’ve read about the same number, but mostly different titles (except for the first two). So if Liz starts up a readalong, we’ll probably be reading in opposite months! Well….

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