Clock Dance is a greatest-hits album in novel form. Anne Tyler’s latest book features most, if not all of her trademark themes and writerly quirks, and it moves briskly, but in absence throughout is a certain personality — a particularity. Its appeal, for many, will be rooted in that familiarity, a meeting of long-refined expectations. But the novel toggles between playing to Tyler’s strengths and going through the motions of her relatively threadbare story beats.
This is mostly evident in Clock Dance’s ambling first half, which sets up subtle emotional payoffs at the expense of sufficient emotional investment. Tyler introduces Willa Drake, a quiet 11-year-old growing up with a dysfunctional family in 1967 Pennsylvania; her relationship with her abusive mother is especially fraught, and she’s eventually left with only her meek father after an abrupt walkout. Tyler then swiftly pushes the action a decade later, tracing Willa’s sudden decision to marry her college boyfriend, Derek, after he meets her parents and holds his ground with them. The pattern continues: Halfway through, we’ve already covered a half-century, with a middle-aged Willa suddenly forced to hit the reset button after the road-rage-prone Derek dies in a car crash.
Of course, this snapshot-like approach to the passage of time is nothing new for Tyler, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Accidental Tourist and the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons. (Her last original novel, 2015’s A Spool of Blue Thread, luminously explored three generations of family life.) It’s that dreamy flow which, at her best, marks the author’s wisdom and vision as a chronicler of the human condition. But in Clock Dance it’s lacking in potency. Tyler seems anxious to keep things moving, more concerned with how character details and experiences fit together, puzzle-like, than really living in their humanity. Willa has an oddball streak in line with Tyler’s more beloved protagonists, but much of her development here feels like points to check off: how her dynamic with her mother leads her to Derek, how her father’s timidity is passed onto her, and finally, how her own parental shortcomings inform the final act of her journey. With few exceptions — including a fascinating encounter with a gun-wielding hijacker — there’s not much room for spontaneity.
Clock Dance is perhaps ultimately an argument for seeing an uneven story of high potential through to its conclusion. This is a book that improves significantly as it progresses, offering an affecting portrait of a widow finding herself at an older age, after passively living in the shadow of so many others for so much of her life. Initially it seems that Willa is repeating past mistakes: After remarrying to a former lawyer named Peter who’s similarly patronizing, she’s asked in a bizarre turn of events to care for Cheryl, the daughter of her son’s ex-girlfriend (to whom she is not related), and does so happily — changing everything in a sudden, even random move to Baltimore, with Peter grudgingly in tow.
Maybe it’s the relocation to Tyler’s hometown that injects Clock Dance with real purpose: The author handles the shake-up elegantly, providing the space for Willa to gain insight and reflect on the struggles, disappointments, and tragedies which have unfortunately come to define her. She bonds with Cheryl, and the two grow together. Willa finds a community among her idiosyncratic neighbors, a cast of misfits Tyler could draw up in her sleep. (They’re still plenty good company.) She has a tenderly devastating denouement with her father. And she’s able to slowly exist apart from Peter as her own person. Peter’s a thin foil for Willa, as so many in Clock Dance are, but the cumulative effect of Tyler’s narrative sweep finally shines through — a quiet but sharply feminist statement, snuck into her heroine’s climactic wake-up call.
It’s a strong finish, though it seems fair to expect a bit more of Tyler, now on her 21st novel and with a long line of classics to her name. The fleeting structure of Clock Dance’s opening chapters stays unsatisfying, no matter how effectively they fit within the novel’s grander scope. Rest assured, the dialogue is fun and snappy throughout; the final pages offer a warm and appropriately, exceedingly sentimental ending. Tyler still hits her marks. But this time out, that isn’t quite enough. B