review: Marla Cantrell
By Anne Tyler Alfred A. Knopf | 292 pages | $27
Anne Tyler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary icon, takes the ordinary lives of ordinary people and lifts them so high they become ethereal. This is especially true for Clock Dance, which tells the story of Willa Drake in four acts. Act one opens in 1967 when she’s eleven, living in Pennsylvania and dreaming of her adult life. She wants to live someplace big enough to have sidewalks. She expects she’ll be happy.
Act two opens in 1977 when Willa is in college in Illinois, preparing to take her boyfriend, Derek, home to visit. The flight is the first she’s taken, and something so disturbing happens to her that she fears for her life. This event and the way Derek responds to it seem to say a lot about the couple’s future, but still, she marries him, has two sons and lives a moderately happy life.
Act three begins in 1997 when tragedy strikes. Coming to her aid is her father who tells her to live one moment at a time until those moments become days and then weeks and then years.
Act four begins in 2017. Willa is now married to Peter, a semi-retired attorney living in Phoenix where she fills her time with friends, getting her curly hair straightened, and trying to maintain a connection with her adult sons who’ve moved away.
There are clues that things aren’t spectacular for Willa. She has a superficial relationship with her only sister. Her husband is curmudgeonly and refers to Willa as Little One, making her seem more like a child than his equal partner. She lives in a golfing community but never golfs.
One day, she gets a call from a woman in Baltimore who believes Willa is the grandmother of a nine-year-old girl named Cheryl, whose mother, Denise, has been shot and is in the hospital. The mistake is complicated, but it has to do with the fact that Denise had been in a relationship with Willa’s son, Sean.
Willa begs off when asked to come care for Cheryl but then reconsiders. In an act totally out of character, she decides to go. And so does her husband Peter, who finds the situation more trying as each day dawns.
In the beginning, Willa is nervous about everything, especially driving. Soon, though, Peter returns to Arizona, and Willa is left to help Denise and Cheryl alone. She drives to the hospital each day to see Denise. She gets to know the eclectic cast of characters that make up the working-class neighborhood. She makes a decision to hide a secret she’s discovered that could have dire consequences.
Of course, the secret comes out, and it threatens all the goodwill that Willa’s found in her new community. She books a ticket to go home to Peter, back to the life that did not fulfill her but at least she understood. The trip to Phoenix is a pivotal journey that opens Willa’s eyes to the hard choices she must make if she finally wants to be happy. Will she do it? You’ll have to see for yourself.