Monthly Archives: October 2018

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler

clockdanceAnne 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.

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Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner

flyawayhomeIf you read my last review, you’ll note that I said I needed some recovery time after The Great Believers. Something a little less intense. To my great relief, I remembered I had a Jennifer Weiner novel on my e-reader, and, well, you can count on Jennifer Weiner to lighten the mood.

I’m not sure why. I mean, it’s not like bad stuff doesn’t happen to characters in her novels. In Fly Away Home, a popular politician cheats on his wife, and when the story breaks, the long-suffering, supportive wife Sylvie is left to pick up the pieces. Her two grown daughters, Diana and Lizzie, aren’t doing so great either — Lizzie’s just out of rehab, while high-achiever Diana is questioning everything about the life she’s constructed for herself.

Tragedies happen, but Weiner’s characters, as in all her novels, are smart, funny, and relentlessly resilient. (And also, none of the tragedies are on the “everyone in your friend group died of AIDS” level, so it’s definitely going to be lighter than The Great Believers). You know Jennifer Weiner’s going to take good care of her characters, and that they’ll be more or less OK in the end.

And they are.

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The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

greatbelieversThis novel tells two stories in alternating chapters. The first story, set in the 1980s, is told from the point of view of Yale, a young gay man in Chicago just as AIDS is becoming a crisis. Yale and his boyfriend Charlie suffer the loss of several friends, beginning with Nico, whose younger sister Fiona becomes a substitute sister and caregiver for several of her late brother’s friends. Yale himself doesn’t worry too much about contracting AIDS: he’s already tested negative and he and Charlie have been monogamous for a long time. But as the virus cuts a swathe through his circle of friends, Yale finds himself questioning everything he thought he could rely on.

The other half of the story is Fiona’s story, thirty years later. She’s in her early fifties, divorced, and the mother of a grown daughter from whom she’s become estranged. On the slight chance of a hint that suggests her daughter might be in Paris, Fiona flies to that city, stays with an old friend, and hires a private detective to search for her daughter. As her present-day story unfolds alongside Yale’s story of the past, we discover the sources of the scars Fiona is carrying, as well as the fates of all the characters from Yale’s story.

Part of the 1980s story involves Yale’s job — he works in development and fundraising at a university art gallery, which has received an exciting but complicated bequest from a woman who lived in Paris and knew several famous artists before and after the First World War. The Lost Generation of Paris in the 20s is paralleled with the lost generation of young gay men in the 1980s, as the story explores how such widespread trauma leaves survivors haunted by the faces of those they’ll never see again.

This is a big, sprawling, beautiful, heartbreaking novel. I read it quickly, found myself very immersed in both stories, and needed a little recovery time afterwards.

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