Willa Drake’s second husband calls her ‘little one’, even though she is over 60 and the mother of two grown boys. After a troubled childhood in Lark City, Pennsylvania, she married at 21, stopped studying after her first pregnancy and was widowed with teenage children when her first husband was killed in a road-rage incident of his own making. Willa walked away from the crash physically unscathed: ‘She seemed to be in a kind of bubble, sealed away on her own.’ Late in life she suddenly decides the time has come to stop drifting, or going ‘at things so slantwise’. To her new husband’s bafflement, she responds to a random call for help after one of her son’s ex-girlfriends is shot in the leg in Baltimore. The ex-girlfriend, whom Willa has never met, has a young daughter who needs caring for while she is in hospital. Willa is not the girl’s grandmother, but wishes she was.
Clock Dance is structured as a series of flashbacks to the defining episodes of Willa’s life, which illuminate without explaining away her need to begin again. This is Anne Tyler’s 22nd novel. Like many of its predecessors, it concerns marriage, children, the passage of time and minute details of domesticity. ‘Any large “questions of life” that emerge in my novels are accidental,’ Tyler has claimed, ‘not a reason for writing the novel in the first place.’ The accidental question that emerges in Clock Dance is: can a child of whom too much was expected too young recover in adult life?
Soon after Willa arrives in Baltimore to look after Cheryl, the daughter of her son’s ex-girlfriend, she starts to reflect on her own childhood: ‘she’d felt like a watchful, wary adult housed in a little girl’s body’. Now in her sixties, paradoxically, ‘it often seemed to her that from behind her adult face a child about eleven years old was still gazing out at the world’.
The novel begins in 1967, when Willa was 11, on the day that her flamboyant and volatile mother abandons her, her sister and their father. ‘Grilled cheese sandwiches tonight,’ Willa’s father announces in a faux cheerful voice, ‘your mother won’t be joining us.’ In her mother’s absence Willa gets her younger sister and herself dressed and ready for the school bus, does household chores and emotionally supports their father: ‘It wasn’t so bad, really, being in charge. She began to imagine it as a permanent situation — just the three of them forever, coping on their own. Why, she and her father between them could keep things going just fine! They both liked systems, and methods. If her mother ever came back, she’d say, “Oh.” She’d look around her and say, “Oh. I see you are doing better than I ever did.”’
Willa’s mother does come back, but never expresses the approval or gratitude that Willa hopes for. It is her parents’ joint disapproval that propels her into such an early marriage. After she is widowed, Willa wonders if her boys will look back on their childhood with fondness, or whether they are storing up resentments against her. ‘She had tried her best to be a good mother — which to her meant a predictable mother.’ Her second husband’s explanation for Willa’s peculiar decision to fly across America to help the child of a stranger is simply that she misses being a mother: ‘But look at it this way: now you’ve got me,’ he says, desperate for attention.
‘As far as I’m concerned, character is everything,’ Tyler has said, ‘I never did see why I have to throw in a plot too.’ Clock Dance is a perfectly executed example of her fiction — precise, unpretentious and centred on credible characters to whom Tyler never condescends.