by Anne Tyler
Published July 2018
Clock Dance was the second pick for Barnes & Noble’s nation-wide Book Club. (The first was Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, back in May.) Like the first one, it was contemporary fiction, which I’m pretty meh about. When I learned it was set mostly in Baltimore, and written by a local author, I became more interested. I’m originally from Oregon, but Baltimore has become my home, and I enjoy reading about it. We had a slightly larger group than last time, but I was the only returning attendee besides the store employee, Sam, who led the discussion.
Sam opened the discussion with the same question that she started the last one with – “Did you like the main character?” It’s an interesting question because most people ask “Did you like the book?” which can have a different answer. I don’t usually read books in which I don’t like the main character, but that’s usually because I choose my books. I’m not choosing my Book Club books, so it’s a good question. Unlike last time, I did like Willa. I disagreed with her judgment when it came to husbands, but I still sympathized with her. I mentioned that I didn’t like that she just floated through most of her life without any real ambition, but to be honest, I’ve done that too. I’m not a very ambitious person – or my ambitions are quite low. I think that, perhaps, is the difference. I find a lot of fulfillment in being, effectively, my husband’s personal assistant. It’s fun. Willa did not seem to find it fulfilling, she just – didn’t want to rock the boat.
I like how we saw each of Willa’s “defining moments” – the book opens on her as a child, her volatile mother having stormed out of the house during an argument. Her mother really does a number on her as a child. I think it’s why she hates to rock the boat so much. From here, we fast forward to college, and Willa’s boyfriend proposing to her after gaslighting her about an event that happened on the plane. Willa’s mother disapproves. Vehemently. I think that’s part of why Willa accepts. Our next view of Willa’s life is the accident that takes her husband’s life, and its aftermath.
Then we finally start into the real meat of the book, twenty years after the death of her first husband. Her sons have grown and moved away, she has remarried, and both of her parents have passed. Her husband is a little distant, and she seems rather untethered. Then she gets the strangest phone call. It turns out her eldest son lived with a woman (Denise) and her daughter for a little while in Baltimore; he has since moved on, but “Sean’s mother” is still a phone number on Denise’s emergency contact list. So when Denise is shot in the leg and put in the hospital, a neighbor lady sees it, assumes Willa is the grandmother of the child, and calls her to come take care of her. It’s a little convoluted, and Willa can’t even adequately explain to her husband why she’s decided to fly to Baltimore to take care of a child she has no relation to, but she does so anyway.
This is where we get to Baltimore, and, in Anne Tyler’s own words, “when her story changes to Technicolor.”
I actually live just outside Baltimore myself, but one of my best friends lives in Charles Village, and I could SO EASILY envision Willa’s neighborhood as a street of rowhomes. (Turns out it’s probably based on a neighborhood in Hamilton, according to the Baltimore Sun.) I was even mapping locations in Willa’s house to my friend’s rowhome! Anne Tyler really captures the spirit of Baltimore, and now I want to read more of her books, even if they are contemporary fiction!
Overall I enjoyed Clock Dance; Anne Tyler is very good at subtle character growth, which is quite realistic. People don’t often change all at once. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of being told what to do before finally waking up to what you WANT to do.
From the cover of Clock Dance:
An inspiring novel of one woman’s transformative journey
Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she years to be a grandmother but isn’t sure she ever will be.
Then, one day, Willa receives a startling phone call from a stranger. Without fully understanding why, she flies across the country to Baltimore to look after a young woman she’s never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and their dog, Airplane. This impulsive decision will lead Willa into uncharted territory – surrounded by eccentric neighbors who treat each other like family, she finds solace and fulfillment in unexpected places.
A bewitching novel of hope, self-discovery, and second chances, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.