The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler (1972)

This year I’m joining in Liz’s Anne Tyler readalong for all of the Tyler novels that I own and haven’t read yet (at least the ones I can access; others are marooned in a box in the States). The Clock Winder was Tyler’s fourth novel and the first to take place in Baltimore, her trademark setting. It’s the earliest of her works that I’ve read. (See also Liz’s review.)

When I reviewed Clock Dance back in 2018, I wondered if there could be a connection between the two novels beyond their titles. A clock, of course, symbolizes the passage of time, so invites us to think about how the characters change and what stays the same over the years. But there is, in fact, another literal link: in both books, there is a fairly early mention of a gun – and, if you know your Chekhov quotes, that means it’s going to go off. Whereas in Clock Dance the gunshot has no major consequences, here it’s a method of suicide. So the major thing to surprise me about The Clock Winder is that it goes to a dark place that Tyler’s fiction rarely visits, though an additional later threat comes to nothing.

As the novel opens in 1960, Pamela Emerson fires the Black handyman who has worked for her for 25 years. “The house had outlived its usefulness,” what with Mr. Emerson dead these three months and all seven children grown up and moved out. Mrs. Emerson likes to keep up appearances – her own hair and makeup, and the house’s porch furniture, which a passerby helps her move. This helpful stranger is Elizabeth Abbott, a Baptist preacher’s daughter from North Carolina who is taking on odd jobs to pay for her senior year of college. Mrs. Emerson hires Elizabeth as her new ‘handyman’ for $40 a week. One of her tasks is to wind all the clocks in the house. Though she’s a tall tomboy, Elizabeth attracts a lot of suitors – including two of the Emerson sons, Timothy and Matthew.

We meet the rest of the Emerson clan at the funeral for the aforementioned suicide. There’s a very good post-funeral meal scene reminiscent of Carol Shields’s party sequences: disparate conversations reveal a lot about the characters. “We’re event-prone,” Matthew writes in a letter to Elizabeth. “But sane, I’m sure of that. Even Andrew [in a “rest home” for the mentally ill] is, underneath. Probably most families are event-prone, it’s just that we make more of it.” In the years to come, Elizabeth tries to build a life in North Carolina but keeps being drawn back into the Emersons’ orbit: “Life seemed to be a constant collision … everything recurred. She would keep running into Emersons until the day she died”.

The main action continues through 1965 and there is a short finale set in 1970. While I enjoyed aspects of the characters’ personalities and interactions, the decade span felt too long and the second half is very rambly. A more condensed timeline might have allowed for more of the punchy family scenes Tyler is so good at, even this early in her career. (There is a great left-at-the-altar scene in which the bride utters “I don’t” and flees!) Still, Elizabeth is an appealing antihero and the setup is out of the ordinary. I liked comparing Baltimore then and now: in 1960 you get a turkey being slaughtered in the backyard for Thanksgiving, and pipe smoking in the grocery store. It truly was a different time. One nice detail that persists is the 17-year cicadas.

You can see the seeds of some future Tyler elements here: large families, sibling romantic rivalries, secrets, ageing and loss. The later book I was reminded of most was Back When We Were Grown-ups, in which a stranger is accepted into a big, bizarre family and has to work out what role she is to play. A Tyler novel is never less than readable, but this ended up being my least favorite of the 12 I’ve read so far, so I doubt I’ll read the three that preceded it. Those 12, in order of preference (greatest to least), are:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Ladder of Years

The Accidental Tourist

Breathing Lessons

Digging to America

Vinegar Girl

Clock Dance

Back When We Were Grown-ups

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

Redhead by the Side of the Road

The Clock Winder

 

Source: Charity shop

My rating:

 

Next up for me will be Earthly Possessions in mid-April.

17 responses

  1. Ah, you beat me to publishing a review by about 30 minutes! Here’s mine https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2021/02/20/book-review-anne-tyler-the-clock-winder/ I did actually find this a bit odd myself and I wouldn’t dismiss at very least the preceding one, “A Slipping Down Life” which I greatly enjoyed. Those are some good and apposite quotes you picked out and thank you for joining me in the challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh dear, sorry, I didn’t mean to gazump you! I should have asked when you were planning to post. I had a couple of hours free after watching an online festival in the morning so did my write-up and posted right away. It looks like we noted a lot of the same things. I didn’t want to get into spoilers so mentioned a couple of climactic events that happened, but not who they happened to. I’ll add some further comments on your post.

      My library has A Slipping-Down Life in the rolling stacks (not general access), so I can easily catch up with that one sometime.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha – not a problem, and you probably know by now that I usually post earlyish in the morning! Thank you for adding the link to my review in yours. I had to finish some urgent work before my run and I hadn’t written my review up in advance, rather shamefully – I don’t get much time to write reviews in the week at the moment. Anyway yes, we did pick up on similar things, although I found more significance in the second gun incident than you did, I think, as it seemed to take away the firer’s issues with his victim and life in general!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m not sure Tyler’s picture of mental illness rings true there…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well no, but DID he have a mental illness or was he a repository of something from the family plus usual AT set in his ways?

        Like

      2. One thing I struggle with in her books (though I do love reading her) is the way she neutralizes very serious matters so that they become comic or at least not as serious. I worry she risks becoming flippant, or irrelevant.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel like I’ve read this one, but not 100% sure! I wouldn’t rush to read it again though after your review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those 11 others stood out for me more! But a Tyler is always a cosy read.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I too haven’t read this particular one. But it looks as if it will stay that way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Liz’s review might tempt you more. But so far I’ve found that her mid-period is much better than the early or late stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting… I think I’ll still try to read it, but there are others I’d rather read first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will probably read all of her work someday. They’re easy and generally cheering reads. In pre-Covid days I used to have a habit (borrowed from Laila at Big Reading Life) of taking a Tyler novel on every flight, but I haven’t flown in nearly two years now.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m not sure I’d like this one, but also have Earthly Posessions lined up for April.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m looking forward to that one — I know nothing about it so have no preconceptions!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I know I’ve read this (I still have my original copies of her first six novels) but I don’t remember anything about it. What I do remember though, is that eccentricity seemed to be an element of her books later on, but it felt like eccentricity was the whole story in the earlier works. One detail about one of the early books really stands out in my mind, but I haven’t heard it mentioned in anyone’s review yet, so I’m still waiting to see…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that distinction, the eccentricity being the main thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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