What I read
It’s hard to believe I first read Anne Tyler thirty years ago. I was a different woman then.
Tyler’s characters are finely drawn and I feel as if I know them–maybe not in this world, but in some other reality, perhaps. Her families are made up of people as different from each other as those in my own. There are movers and shakers, dreamers, ne’er-do-wells, and milquetoasts. They argue. They compete.
And they love.
Although there can be no rival to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or Accidental Tourist, Tyler continues to peel back the layers of family life in her novel Clock Dance. But her main character–unlike young Pearl in Dinner or Muriel in Accidental–Willa Drake has aged right along with me.
And it’s a breath of fresh air to read a novel about a woman of a certain age who is not done yet.
Willa’s life hadn’t been always smooth–an unpredictable, often abusive mother; an overbearing husband; widowed too early. And (not too surprising) a second overbearing husband, albeit a slightly nicer one. But rather than evolve, Willa adapted. She appeased rather than asserted; she bent instead of standing firm. Willa realized she was “cheery and polite and genteel and superficial”. And what did it get her? Not a thing. Her relationship with her adult sons was distant. Her husband’s likes and dislikes superseded her own needs. Even her job as an ESL teacher in Tucson was only tangentially related to her passion for linguistics.
And then, in typical Tyler plot-twist fashion, Willa flies off to help her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise (a woman she’s never met) recover from a gunshot wound. While Denise is in the hospital, Willa becomes a surrogate grandmother to Denise’s ten-year-old daughter Cheryl–and eventually finds herself an essential cog in the wheel that is their Baltimore neighborhood. The characters are also typical in their Tyler-esque quirkiness. There is Ben, the faded doctor with a washed-up practice. And Sir Joe (Sergio) the biker-cum-HVAC technician who fosters his fifteen-year-old half-brother Erland. Richard and Barry the gay couple down the street who lend a hand whenever needed. And Hal, the sad sack across the street, jilted by his wife Elissa for Willa’s son Sean.
They need each other like Willa needs them.
It’s a long time coming, but Willa finally–finally–realizes she has a choice: “she might try something new that she hasn’t even imagined yet. There is no limit to the possibilities.”
She will no longer come at life slantwise, as Denise once accused her of doing. No more pussyfooting around for this “brave and glorious” woman.
What I lived
I can’t even.
Willa might as well be me between the covers of a book.
And it was exhilarating–and something of a relief–to read I am not alone in becoming a “brave and glorious thing” … at any age.
The title for this post comes from a poem I’ve come to love about aging titled “Beneath the sweater and the skin” (Jeannette Encinias)–you’ll find it a nice companion to the novel.