“I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned that has helped me,” he said. “Shall I?”
“Yes, tell me,” she said, growing still.
“I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.”
She thought that over.
“But …” she said.
“But … is that enough?” she asked him.
“Well, yes, it turns out that it is,” he said.
It’s odd that Anne Tyler’s novels are so consoling to read when over and over the message they quietly send is that for a lot of people (maybe especially middle-aged women) ordinary life is something you either want to escape from or need to recover from. Ladder of Years has been a favorite comfort read of mine for decades now: in times of stress I find my mind wandering to the small barren room Delia moves into after she walks away from her family at the beach and simply doesn’t go back. A place to sleep, a library nearby, a way to make tea: isn’t that enough?
But the other thing about Tyler’s novels is that while her characters may stray, they almost always come home again (literally or emotionally). I think that might be part of why her books are soothing rather than disturbing, but sometimes it also seems to me that her vision is very conservative. Settle down, she often seems to be saying; appreciate what you’ve got; don’t go looking for trouble. You have enough, if you’d just stop wanting more. There’s no room for Maggie Tullivers in her fiction, with their “blind unconscious yearning” bringing everything to ruin, or for a character like Reta in Carol Shields’ Unless, who is quietly but fiercely enraged by “the great female secret of wanting and not getting.” What if we push back, in a way that Tyler’s characters mostly don’t? Maybe it isn’t enough. What if change–maybe even disruption, rebellion, rage–is not just good but necessary? What if I’m being, not consoled but placated?
Clock Dance felt very familiar. From the first page, you’re clearly in Anne Tyler territory, and the whole novel is good in just the way I expect Anne Tyler novels to be good. Ordinary people, ordinary lives, small griefs, a few wounds, some gestures of kindness that create gently transformative connections. I liked it a lot but it did not surprise me at all, except in the faint ambiguity of the ending. Does Willa in fact go home again? Is the new life she imagines so vividly a comforting dream to hang on to, or is there a chance this time that she might take off and leave her disappointments behind? “In her new life,” she thinks, “she will rent a room somewhere.” Maybe it will be Delia’s room. Maybe this time she’ll stay. Or is that just me, asking (for me, for her, for whoever wonders) if this really is enough, and trying to imagine what else it could be?