Willa Drake lucked out with her dad, Melvin, a gentle high school teacher. Granted, he was meek — “so mild-mannered that he thought it was impolite to pick up a telephone in mid-ring,” she says, years after his death. But in his steady, quiet, respectful love of her, he was a pretty solid exemplar of the way a man should be.
Willa is, of course, oblivious to this lesson. As a college student in 1977, she ignores her parents’ vehement objections and picks a handsome, moneyed husband who reflexively condescends to her and blithely disregards her ambitions. For her second husband, in middle age, she chooses a good-looking, self-centered whiner, whose term of endearment for her is “little one.” Her elder son, taking after his father, is also a colossal creep.
It is something of a triumph, then, that Anne Tyler’s “Clock Dance,” a novel that has Willa for its heroine, doesn’t read like a portrait of a dishrag. Rather, it’s a psychologically astute study of an intelligent, curious woman who spends decades playing the good-girl role that one man after another expects of her. Her own desires have been foiled — with her sometimes timid, sometimes strategic acquiescence — for practically all of her adult life.
Spanning 50 years, the novel opens in 1967, when Willa is 11 and growing up in small-town Pennsylvania. She and her younger sister, Elaine, have learned to be cautious of their emotionally turbulent mother, Alice, who also seems to be playing a part: Cheery Mid-Century Mom. Their fear is of the moments when the mask slips. Then she flies into a rage and harms her children, or goes AWOL, leaving her family behind.
Raised in Philadelphia, trapped in the sticks, Alice pours her creative energies into community theater, where she is a star. “I think she really could have made something of herself if we’d lived in a big city,” Melvin says, and you have to wonder how much better her mental health would’ve been if they had. Alice is like a walking embodiment of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” but by the time that book came out, in 1963, she already had two little girls.
Alice is the model that Willa, transplanted to Southern California, is determined to defy with her own children. She aims to be predictable above all, ensuring that her boys “would never have to worry what sort of mood she was in,” and wouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around her. “She was the only woman she knew whose prime objective was to be taken for granted.”
Mission accomplished, but really it might have been a more nuanced mission. Her dream of a career as a linguist: gone. Her self-confidence: also vanished. She’s been gaslighted into passivity not only by a sexist culture but also and more immediately by her first husband, who is such a jerk that his fatal exit from the book is an intensely satisfying catharsis.
A master of self-effacement, Willa has trouble putting herself first even after his death — which explains how, as a non-golfer in 2017, she winds up living in an Arizona golfing community with her bullying second husband. An enormous percentage of her energy is devoted to placating him. Isolated and friendless, with her sons far away and her sister just as distant, she is bored out of her mind.
So when the phone rings one summer day and a stranger in Maryland asks if she can fly there immediately to look after a 9-year-old named Cheryl, Willa says yes — shrugging off the fact that the caller, a neighbor, has clearly mistaken her for the girl’s grandmother. The connection is much more tenuous than that: Willa’s son, Sean, is the ex-boyfriend of Cheryl’s mother, Denise, who has just been shot and is lying in a hospital bed. Willa has never met Denise or her daughter.
The one rickety section of the book is where Tyler has to set this implausible scenario in motion. It takes a little while for her to channel a persuasive voice for the precocious Cheryl, and for us to stop wondering: What in the world is Willa doing there?
But her presence on this scrubby Baltimore block quickly comes to make sense, and not only because of Willa’s longing for a grandchild. The shooting notwithstanding (and if you don’t guess the responsible party immediately, you’re not paying attention), this is a neighborhood pulsing with vital, human connection, a place where people look after one another.
It’s a bit of an “Our Town” situation, in that everyone has a role. Playing sweet and dithery won’t cut it, though. The time has come for Willa to recast herself.
Let the awakening begin.
By Anne Tyler
Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95
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Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.