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Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I was introduced to Anne Tyler was in the mid ’90s, when Saint Maybe was assigned during one of my English Lit classes, not long after it was published. I became an instant fan. Though I’ve read and loved many of her novels, I lost track of Tyler’s work after The Amateur Marriage in 2006. Reading Clock Dance felt like returning to my childhood home after many years; it was familiar, comforting, and enveloped me with a sense of belonging. This is the America I remember from my past, filled with ordinary people and oddballs doing their best to get by. Tyler gets straight to the heart of what it means to be human.

This novel is a slow burner. There’s quite a bit of drama at the beginning and then it sort of tapers off. What I enjoy about Tyler’s writing is the way she develops her characters without judgment. None of them are perfect and many are simply unlikable. Yet she produces dynamic protagnonists who slowly evolve as the story progresses. Much of the drama that plays out in this novel is psychological. Tyler is adept at presenting different perspectives through use of dialogue, which helps the reader gain insights that the characters might lack.

The story begins when Willa is 11 and gives a clear picture of her family’s unhappy household. Willa relates to her father and takes after him. She is excessively meek and finds it impossible to set boundaries. In adulthood, her life is dominated by her controling husbands. I wanted her to speak up and assert herself, to take charge of her own destiny. Her passivity drove me crazy at times. Yet I found myself continually rooting for her, experiencing her hurts as if they were my own.

It was easy to empathise with Willa. I admired her kind, caring nature, even though she was sometimes motivated by her own need to be needed. I could understand why she grew up to be highly anxious and chronically conflict avoidant. I also felt compassion for her sister Elaine who became emotionally distant as the story evolved. Each of them found different ways of coping with their traumatic childhood.

Their unpredicatble, abusive mother damaged both of them, while their father- the “Good Guy”- failed to protect his daughters. He chose to focus only on what he wanted to see in his wife, excusing her “tempestuous” behaviour in favour of her charm and beauty. Willa, like her father, shielded herself with ample ammounts of denial. Any time Elaine expressed anger about their parents or tried to process her traumatic childhood memories, Willia dismissed her. She urged her sister to “move on” without acknowledging the pain they had both endured. As a result, they failed to connect in any meaningful way. Elaine competely withdrew from her family of origin. Willa missed her younger sister but lacked the ability to do anything about it.

The story jumps to several points in Willa’s life. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that at midlife she struggles with loss, empty nest syndrome, and lonliness. The bulk of the story occurs when Willa is 61. After she recieves a distressing phone call and a request for her help, she flies to Baltimore. Her cantankerous husband Peter accompanies her, reminding Willa at every opportunity how absurd it is to respond to a call from strangers. Willa’s decision to venture into the unknown changes her life in ways she never would have imagined.

For the first time, Willa begins to forge her own path. It struck me that the main character’s name was so closedly related to the word “will,” defined as the mental power used to control and direct your thoughts and actions, or a determination to do something, despite any difficulties or opposition. The philosophical concept of free will refers to an individul having agency-the ability to act- in any given situation, to determine the course of one’s life.

These themes are explored in Clock Dance. Ultimately this is a story about family in its various forms, belonging, and one woman’s quest to find fulfillment late in life. When things become difficult, will she finally have the courage to change her behavioral patterns? You’ll have to read it to find out.

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