Likely Stories: Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

May 16, 2019

Novel by one of the great writers of the 20th century


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

One of the earliest writers I came to love was Anne Tyler.  If the truth be told, I obsessed over her fiction.  She was also one of the earliest writers I collected.  Her latest novel, Clock Dance, is a typical Tyler tale of families seeking beyond the mundane.  The novel is divided into four sections labeled 1967, 1977, 1997, and 2017, which closes the novel.

Anne—I am so immersed in her novels I feel as if I we were on a first-name basis—opens her latest novel with two young friends.  Anne writes, “Willa Drake and Sonya Bailey were selling candy bars door to door.  This was for the Herbert Malone Elementary School Orchestra.  If they sold enough, the orchestra would get to travel to the regional competitions in Harrisburg, but she liked the harsh, gritty sound of the name.  Sonya had been but had no memory of it because she was a baby at the time.  Both of them swore they would absolutely die if they didn’t get to go now. // Willa played the clarinet.  Sonya played the flute.  They were eleven years old.  They lived two blocks from each other in Lark City, Pennsylvania, which wasn’t a city at all or even much of a town and in fact didn’t even have sidewalks except on the one street where the stores were.  In Willa’s mind, the sidewalks were huge.  She planned never to live in a place without them after she was grown” (5).  These individual dated sections provided meager details of the girl’s lives.

The story continues with 1977, where we suddenly find Willa with her boyfriend, Derek, in college.  Derek could afford the tickets to fly home so they could meet Willa’s mother.  He said they got BOGO tickets for the short flight.  I sensed he was of a wealthy family.  Willa did not mention the tickets again.  Tyler continues, “The house had been spruced up for their visit, Willa could tell.  There was a pot of pansies on the porch that must have been bought within the last couple of days, because her mother could kill off a plant in no time, as she cheerfully admitted herself.  In the foyer, Willa smelled a combination of lemon Pledge and Mr. Clean, and when she took Derek upstairs to the guest room she could see the fresh vacuum cleaner tracks on the carpet.  ‘This is where you’ll be sleeping,’ she told him entering first.  The window was open and a breeze was stirring the curtain.  A vase of daffodils stood on the dresser.  Clearly, her mother had gone to a lot of trouble” (57).

And, just as suddenly, 1997 arrives.  Anne writes, Willa and Derek were just on the freeway, driving to a swim party in Coronado.  A vice president at Sports Infinity had a house there with an Olympic sized pool.  Turning down the invitation was not an option, according to Derek, but Willa could think of a lot better things to do with her Sunday afternoon.  She found Derek’s business associates difficult to talk to.  They all seemed to have this slick, smooth surface with no bumps she could grab onto, she told Derek.  (Derek said, ‘Huh?’)  Also, she didn’t see swimming as a social activity.  Here she’d given so much thought to her clothes—slim silk pants, peach-colored tunic, Mexican huaraches—and now she was supposed to struggle into a swimsuit in somebody’s cramped cabana and dunk her carefully straightened pageboy in liquid chlorine” (77). 

I was born and raised a mere 60 miles north of Anne Tyler’s Baltimore.  I felt right at home with Anne and all her characters.  On steamy summer nights, we regularly visited my aunt and uncle for a swim in a pool way over-crowded.  If you haven’t read any Anne Tyler, Clock Dance can be a pleasant visit back home.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!