In “A Spool of Blue Thread,” her splendid 2015 novel about a family and their house, Anne Tyler writes about the human inclination to set a home — both edifice and family — in order. The night before they move into their house, a husband tells his wife: “I’m just trying to pass muster.”
That’s what, in the final analysis, is at the heart of “Vinegar Girl,” Tyler’s previous novel and modern retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew” for the Hogarth Shakespeare series. In Tyler’s iteration, a sassy, impulsive Kate is, quite simply, trying to pass muster.
So is Willa Drake of “Clock Dance.” Yet where Tyler’s Kate is impudent, Willa is compliant; where Kate is high-spirited, Willa is deferential.
In fact, Willa’s life would not seem one to write home about. The significant instances of her life, such as they are, are related in three short, seemingly unconnected, sections over the novel’s first 100 pages.
In 1967, Willa is in elementary school, trying to decide how to sell candy bars door-to-door to benefit the school’s orchestra. Her very impetuous (and abusive) mother has left the family again for a few more days, and Willa and her sister Elaine must take up some of the slack faced by their rather impassive father.
In 1977, an ingenuous Willa, planning to be a linguist, has one year of college remaining before graduation. Then Derek MacIntyre proposes marriage right before she takes him home with her for the holidays. Willa finds herself choosing between graduation (which she wants) and marriage (which everyone else wants).
In 1997, on the way to a weekend outing, Willa and Derek are involved in an incident of road rage that leaves her the widowed mother of two sons.
Throughout each of these sections, Willa can be seen accommodating herself to the vagaries of others. “Just move on,” she often thinks.
It is in 2017 that the novel settles in to its central story. Willa is 61 years old, remarried to retired lawyer Peter Brendon, and living in Arizona — where Peter decided was best. Then one day she receives a desperate phone call from a friend of Denise, her son Sean’s ex-girlfriend, telling her that her daughter-in-law has been shot and that she should come East to take care of her granddaughter. The only problem is that Willa has neither daughter-in-law nor granddaughter. Yet on a whim (her first in the novel), Willa decides she must help.
She and Peter arrive in Anne Tyler’s beloved Baltimore to meet Denise and her 9-year-old daughter, Cheryl. Unlike Willa’s, their home is a small, barely air-conditioned house, part of a fading neighborhood. Sean will later — and uncharitably — describe the neighbors as “a motorcycle hoodlum, a seedy private eye, a has-been doctor with a pack of Medicaid patients.” Even so, Willa’s Baltimore stay will slowly and irrevocably change her life.
As will Cheryl, for Willa is immediately taken with her. Willa sees herself as a girl in Cheryl, whom she calls “a watchful, wary adult housed in a little girl’s body.” There are delicately rendered moments between Willa and Cheryl that are Anne Tyler at her best: walking Cheryl’s small white-and-tan mutt Airplane, being tutored by Cheryl in the art of baking, being introduced to and cared for by the neighbors, watching Cheryl and her two girlfriends perform their “clock dance.”
That “clock dance” — that life journey of her own — is what Willa discovers she must finally learn the steps of. “‘But why just hope? Why pussyfoot around? Why do you go at things so slantwise?’” Denise will finally ask Willa.
“Clock Dance” is about learning not to go at things “slantwise.” It’s about passing muster, about discovering the joys, however ordinary, of the dance of life. As Anne Tyler has one of those Baltimore neighbors remind the inordinately taciturn Willa: “I am puny. We all are. We’re all just infinitesimal organisms floating through a vast universe, and whether we remembered to turn the oven off doesn’t make a bit of difference.”
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.