Anne Tyler is always a reliable go-to author if you want the human experience rendered in loving and insightful details. Clock Dance tells the story of Willa, who is eleven years old in the late 1960s when the story opens, and in her sixties in the present day when the book ends.
The structure of the story is unusual — the first sixty-some years of Willa’s life, and the first part of the book, focuses only on three vignettes. The first is a day when Willa is eleven and her mother disappears, leaving Willa, her father and younger sister, adrift. In the second scene, Willa is a young college student, coming home for a visit with her soon-to-be fiance. In the third, forty-year-old Willa suffers th sudden and tragic death of her husband.
The second part of the book leaps forward to the present day and changes the pace as Willa, now remarried and retired, finds herself plunged unexpectedly into the lives of her son’s ex-girlfriend and that woman’s daughter. Now the pace slows to the day-by-day as we see how Willa rises to the occasion in this crisis and finds herself questioning a lot of things about her life, re-examining how she wants to spend her “sunset years.”
There are flaws in this structure — a lot of interesting things, particularly about Willa’s mother, are brought up in the first part that never have time to get fully developed because we leap over so many years between vignettes. The point of each of the early scenes seems to be to show Willa’s passivity, how she simply lets life happen to her without seizing control of situations because she doesn’t want to upset anyone. The situation that unfolds in the second part is, similarly, one she gets into because of her desire to please people, but the book’s resolution finds Willa questioning that desire and wondering whether she can make a decision to please herself for once in her life.
Willa’s early life occurs in different parts of the US but the final section takes place, as you would expect from an Anne Tyler novel, in Baltimore. The lower-income Baltimore neighbourhood where Willa finds herself helping out her not-daughter-in-law Denise is perhaps a bit too idealized, with a colourful cast of characters who are maybe a bit unrealistically involved in each other’s lives (and including, as another review I read pointed out, a few details that are maybe a bit tone-deaf for a novel set in 2017 — cultural details, especially for the child and teenaged characters, that are just a little off). But the point is that Denise’s neighbourhood is a community, and that’s something Willa has never really had before, and realizes she craves. With all its quirks that was a very readable novel that I enjoyed and finished quickly.