“Clock Dance: a Novel” (Knopf), by Anne Tyler
If you had to identify a single theme in Anne Tyler’s latest novel, it would be the importance of creating a surrogate family if your biological one is irretrievably broken. And also the way traumatic events, such as divorce, abuse and abandonment, reverberate from generation to generation, regardless of how well-intentioned the principals may be.
Consider Willa Drake, the protagonist of “Clock Dance.” The novel begins in 1967 when Willa is 11, going door to door selling candy bars to raise money for her school orchestra. When she gets home, she discovers that her mercurial but charismatic mother, who’s been known to slap Willa across the face and shake her younger sister, Elaine, like a doll, has walked out again, leaving Willa effectively in charge of a helpless 6-year-old along with their meek but reliable father.
Then the story jumps ahead to 1977, when Willa is a junior in college, about to be engaged to a senior named Derek who is the opposite of her dad: outgoing, athletic, short-tempered and pretty oblivious — especially to Willa’s needs, including her desire to finish school before getting married. “Still, it was tempting,” she thinks, “to consider the adventurousness of throwing everything over to marry Derek.”
Fast forward 20 years. Willa, 41, is a widow with two teenagers. Her mother is dead. Elaine has all but disappeared from her life. Her father barely answers his phone. She wonders if her own sons will keep in touch when they’re gone. “She had tried her best to be a good mother — which to her meant a predictable mother.”
In the last and longest section, it’s 2017. Willa has remarried, to a man who patronizes her even more than Derek did, calling her “little one.” She longs for grandchildren. One day she gets a phone call from a stranger asking her to come to Baltimore to look after the 9-year-old daughter of her older son’s former girlfriend, a woman she’s never met.
Incredibly, she agrees to go, setting in motion a series of improbable events that give her a second shot at a family, this time of her own choosing. What started as a poignant domestic drama devolves into sitcom territory as prim and proper Willa exchanges her manicured golfing community in Arizona for a gritty, working-class neighborhood filled with quirky characters.
Although Tyler is an unbelievably talented writer, the ending seems overdetermined, as though Tyler is intent on making us believe in redemption and second chances.