“Sometimes Willa felt she’d spent half her life apologizing for some man’s behavior,” and it seems most of Anne Tyler’s latest novel, “Clock Dance,” describes Willa doing just that. As always, like in her previous works, Tyler has written a novel filled with beautiful prose that manages to make the mundane entertaining and uncover the emotional inner lives of her characters. Unfortunately, the characters—Willa in particular—are far too static for a plot so propelled by emotion, and this lack of development ultimately hinders the book as a whole.
Tyler gives ample backstory for Willa, spending the first 100 pages detailing the three most important moments of Willa’s life: the first time her mother abandoned the family for an entire night when Willa was age 11; her engagement at age 21; and the death of her husband in a car accident at age 41. These stories are emotionally fraught. 11 year old Willa is confused as her quiet father stands by while her mother lovingly apologizes to the family after another tyrade of verbal and physical abuse. 21 year old Willa accepts her fiancé’s proposal yet feels off, as if “something unsettled still hung in the air between them.” It’s hard to decide exactly how to feel about the car accident 20 years later due to Derek’s unlikability and the couple’s complete lack of chemistry, but it seems like the perfect moment for Willa to make a change in her life, one that will make her happier and allow her to pursue her dreams.
Yet at 61, Willa is remarried to Peter—a man of similar temperament to Derek—when she receives a call that her son’s ex-girlfriend, Denise, has been shot and needs someone to take care of her child. Although Willa is not a grandmother, she desperately wishes to be, and she convinces Peter to rush to Denise’s aid. Peter’s patience soon wears thin as he begins complaining about the situation, pointedly asking questions like, “isn’t it just that you miss being a mother?” and suggesting that she should take up golf, his favorite pastime, to fulfill her instead of taking care of a child he considers a stranger. Throughout the novel, Willa becomes more aware of her husband’s offputting ways, yet she quietly accepts them, politely smiling and responding to his harsh words and rude voicemail messages. Fortunately, it seems that a reevaluation of her situation is on the horizon—or, at the very least, a stern talk with Peter—but somehow Willa never reaches this stage of development. By the end of the novel, nothing has changed about their relationship, except that Willa is more conscious of its many faults. This lack of development is disheartening, as if even though Willa realizes how often she has apologized on behalf of men, she simply can’t (or won’t) stop doing it.
Fortunately, Tyler has littered her novel with some loveable characters. There is Denise, who has taken her injury in stride but isn’t afraid to complain a little: “Will you stop with the Pollyanna talk?” she asks a nurse who insists on telling her a gunshot wound to the leg isn’t all that bad. Denise’s preteen daughter, Cheryl, is a charming child who is wise beyond her years but reminds us of her age when she misspells Hal as “Howl” or refers to her neighbor Sergio as “Sir Joe.” The neighbors, too, are amusing and offer sweet anecdotes and life advice, as well as neighborhood gossip. This cast of characters counters readers’ complete disdain for Derek and Peter.
Tyler’s prose is as wonderful and elegant as ever. A dog’s ears “stood out so levelly that they might have been held up by scaffolding.” At an inopportune time, Willa “felt a burp of laughter rising in her chest then bubbling in her throat.” Tyler’s prose is whimsical and fun, making “Clock Dance” a breezy read despite some of its more sombre themes. With a little more character development, Tyler’s newest novel could have become more than just a pleasant summer read.
—Caroline E. Tew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew
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