When I think of Anne Tyler, I think of Baltimore, Maryland. That’s where so many of her books are set, and it’s also the city Tyler calls home. CLOCK DANCE, however, begins in Lark City, Pennsylvania, where we meet Willa Drake at the age of eleven. Later the story will segue to Baltimore, but for now it is 1967, and Willa’s mother, Alice, who has a history of extreme moods, has disappeared. Return to her family Alice does, but Willa feels hurt and confused by her mother’s nonchalance over the incident.
Quickly the novel moves ahead to 1977. Willa is a junior in college and brings home her boyfriend Derek over the Easter weekend. He wants Willa to marry him, but she’s not sure she wants to just yet. The visit does not go well due to Alice’s tempestuousness and next we see Willa fleeing her family vowing to marry Derek.
Suddenly we turn the page and it is 1997. Willa did marry Derek and has two nearly grown sons. She has tried to be a reliable, predictable mother, the exact opposite of Alice. But soon her family’s world is turned upside down when Derek dies in a car crash.
Hop, skip and a jump: this time the novel has come all the way forward to 2017. Now we find Willa living in a golf community outside of Tucson Arizona, married to a lawyer named Peter. One day when Willa is busy organizing her headbands (not having much else to do), she gets a confusing phone call that sends her to Baltimore. Her son Sean lives there. His ex-girlfriend, a single mother named Denise, has been shot in the leg and hospitalized. Who will watch her daughter, nine year-old Cheryl?
Somehow there has been a mix-up and the neighbor who has called Willa thinks she is reaching Cheryl’s grandmother. Willa feels compelled to answer the call and go help out. For me, this is where the novel really picked up.
Willa has actually been pining for grandchildren, and thrust into the role by these zany circumstances, she takes to the situation like a duck to water. Though her husband Peter accompanies her to Baltimore, he has no patience for the absurdity of their visit. Eventually he returns to Arizona. Denise can barely hobble as her leg is in a full cast, nor can she drive, and Willa feels much needed.
Round about now, I thought of Delia Grinstead, the woman who walked away from her family at the beach one day in Tyler’s novel, Ladder of Years (1995). Willa gets so involved with Denise and Cheryl and their eccentric neighbors it is as if she has unwittingly run away from Arizona, perhaps for good.
Her impromptu life in funky Baltimore is much cozier and homier than the sterility of her existence with uptight Peter. Yet some of the situations Willa must deal with as a temporary grandmother test her mettle. Read Clock Dance to see how it all turns out. As a lifetime fan of Anne Tyler, I was glad to be back in her beloved Baltimore, hanging out with characters whose strengths and flaws were made so endearingly apparent.
Keddy Ann Outlaw
A librarian for nearly 30 years, Keddy is also a veteran reviewer for Library Journal. Formerly an art major, she’s now busy making mixed media collages, prints and assemblages, and posting as “The Lone Star Librarian” on her website, Speed of Light.