Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother's sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she yearns to be a grandmother, yet the prospect is dimming. So, when Willa receives a phone call from a stranger, telling her that her son's ex-girlfriend has been shot, she drops everything and flies across the country to Baltimore. The impulsive decision to look after this woman and her nine-year-old daughter will lead Willa into uncharted territory--surrounded by eccentric neighbors, plunged into the rituals that make a community a family, and forced to find solace in unexpected places.
When she gets a call that her son's ex-girlfriend (whom she never met) has been shot and needs help, she gets on a plane and heads to Baltimore to take care of her and her 9-year-old daughter. Some may think it odd to fly 2200 miles across the country to care for a woman you've never met (and her daughter), but Willa has always been open to suggestion, not to mention that she's totally bored. But in Baltimore, she finally finds a purpose, people who need her, and a community. The only question is whether she also finds the strength to break from her former go-along-to-get-along life and stay in the place and with the people who actually make her happy.
This is the story of a woman, an intelligent woman, who knew five languages and still let herself be bullied all her life. A woman who just wanted to be wanted.
I read this whole book and I can think of only two words. Sad and why?
I do have to say thanks to the author for saving us and skipping over the Derek years.
Thanks to First to Read and Penguin for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
The fateful day in 1967, when Alice Drake, in a state of angry frustration, decides to leave her husband Melvin, and her two children Willa and Elaine, 11 and 6 respectively, making them latchkey kids, temporarily, is a turning point in their lives. Willa’s mom was sometimes emotionally unstable and physically abusive. This was an example of her compulsive, sometimes irrational behavior. Willa’s dad, a shop teacher, at the Garrettville High School, was the more stable, patient and serene parent. Willa looks up to him. The whole family, however, suffers from her mother’s thoughtless, uncontrolled rage.
The years pass, and the book picks up in 1977, with little discussion of what occurred in the intervening years. Willa is now in college. She is on her way home to Lark City, Pa, with her boyfriend Derek. Willa’s mom has another of her uncontrolled, angry outbursts when they discuss their future plans, and it too has its consequences on their futures. Willa declares her independence, but contrary to that declaration, she seems to live her own life subsuming her needs to the needs of others, always smoothing out the wrinkles of life.
Once again, the years pass, and it is now 1997. Willa is 41. She and Derek have two teenaged children, Sean and Ian. Like Willa and her sister, both of their children are different from each other. While driving and discussing them, Derek, sometimes prone to losing his temper, becomes angry at a driver. Soon road rage has its own consequences. Their whole family suffers from the effects of that anger.
In 2017, without much background information, we find Willa, now 61, with an empty nest, living in Arizona with her second husband, Peter, a man who is more than a decade older than she. He is rather stodgy, but like Derek, he takes care of her and infantilizes her somewhat, making her feel as safe as she did with her father. Women make her more uneasy since her mom was so volatile.
Most of the story begins now with an unusual phone call from Callie Montgomery, a neighbor of her son Sean’s former girlfriend Denise. Denise has been shot in a freak situation and Callie is charged with taking care of her 9 year old daughter, Cheryl, and their dog, Airplane. Callie was overwhelmed, being a working woman who never had children. She found Willa’s phone number on the fridge and took a chance calling her, assuming she was the grandmother, which she was not. Nevertheless, she enlisted her help, and although totally unrelated to any of them in any way, Willa, yearning to be needed again, feeling useless, purposeless and unnecessary, decides to go to Baltimore to help out. Peter decides to accompany her when he fails to persuade her to change her mind. He feels she is not independent enough to handle the strain and stress of the trip, and she agrees, glad for his help. She is somewhat needy and tentative, insecure and uncertain about being alone. Willa’s transformation over the following weeks is the main theme of the story, I believe. She, at such a late stage, finally comes of age.
As Anne Tyler examines the consequences of certain actions and reactions in each of the character’s lives and follows how their futures evolve, the reader watches them make decisions that are often not well thought out. They are often selfish and cruel, mindless and foolish. Still, each decision can quite possibly be traced back to a previous incident in their lives which affected the formation of their character and made him/her, who or what they become.
Willa sought men like her father, men who embodied what she believed was serenity, good judgment, and strength, men who could protect her. She regarded women like her mother warily. They frightened her. She herself made few waves and always sought the quiet, careful, least objectionable response to all situations. She rarely lost her temper. Her children grew up with the character traits of both she and her husband and were also formed by their experiences, sometimes as a result of being misunderstood at the time they occurred, or because their needs were ignored at that time. Many of the characters had anger management issues as well as inordinately selfish needs without the concomitant sense of gratitude for what they received from others. At the end, as Willa imagined the scene around her at the airport, frozen in time, many of the characters in the book are frozen in times, as well. As we move from time period to time period with little explanation about their intervening years and experiences, the reader is left to their own devices and imagination regarding that missing time and its future effects.
The clock dance that Cheryl refers to is slow and in syncopated time; the one that Willa prefers marches onward, fast forwarding into a world where anything is possible. From wanting to maintain the status quo, she begins to want to live, no longer biding her time, but making use of it.
Anne Tyler’s books always have a hidden, quietly stressed, profound message, and this one is no different, although it is a bit thinner in context than others she has written. She seems to leave open spaces in the narrative deliberately, so that the reader can fill them in. In the end, Tyler examines all of life’s possibilities, and although there is some question as to how Willa will live out the rest of her life, adrift or attached to the mainland, it is reasonably predicted by her last thoughts that she is going forward.
Possibly, in the need to make the book part of the current day philosophy of liberals and progressives, of which authors are great in number, Tyler inserts race, mental illness, drugs, sex, crime and infidelity into the narrative in a sometimes contrived and minor way. Some of the characters seem like caricatures of themselves, i.e. the strong man Sir Joe, the nerdy Erland, the Marcus Welby image of a doctor, Ben, the lonely single life and the desire to be independent as in the overweight, self absorbed Callie Montgomery and the selfish ways of a possibly resentful, unexpectedly pregnant and pretty much unwilling young mother, Denise. She calls into question the art of judging people by appearances and not actuality.
In short, the novel is good story that analyzes relationships, ordinary and dysfunctional, examines family dynamics and explores the experiences and choices of the sometimes, somewhat quirky characters. It is tender, at times, and it is authentic in its insight into the minds of children and troubled adults. No one escapes the consequences of life’s choices, even when inadvertent.
Thank you to First to Read for the opportunity to read an advance digital copy! I was under no obligation to post a review and all views expressed are my honest opinion.
Reading this book madkes me realize how easily we sometimes give in, how we can absorb and accept things we never thought we could. How they become the new normal. How much simpler it is to just go along, but maybe not as satisfying. I loved the characters Willa meets in this novel, how she risks herself, slowly stepping out of her shell. But once one does, where does one go from there? Well, that's Willas story and she can tell it better.
ARC from Edelweiss.
Fast forward ten years when she is coerced by her soon to be fiance', Derek, into bringing him home from college for Easter break. Willa's mother serves roast rabbit for Easter as a cruel pun. Derek is ready to graduate, has a job lined up and wants Willa to marry him now rather than finish out her senior year. There is a standoff between Willa's mother and Derek, which Derek wins. Willa concedes to him.
The next key event takes place when their oldest is ready to leave for college and Derek dies in a car crash which is provoked by his impatience. Then we move to the bulk of the story where Willa has remarried to Peter, yet another man who diminishes her by calling her "little one" and dismissing her thoughts and opinions. Willa receives a call regarding one of her oldest son's former partner who has been shot and her 9 year old daughter needs someone to care for her. The caller mistakenly believes that Willa is the grandmother. At Willa's behest she and Peter fly from Arizona to Baltimore to help care for 9 year old Cheryl and her mother Denise. Peter shows his true colors. The close knit Baltimore neighborhood where they live gives Willa a different view of community, family, and meaning in life through their homespun wisdom.
IMO this is not Tyler's best work. But it's a good enough story to hold your attention for a couple of evenings.
In the first part of Anne Tyler’s novel, we only get short episodes, decisive moments which will make a change in Willa’s life: the mother’s disappearance, the proposal and the death of her husband. What they have in common is not only the impact on Willa, but first and foremost the fact that she is on a position where she has no power over her own life, it is others who make a decision for her without consulting her and without taking her own opinion into consideration. First her parents, then her husbands and she never openly opposes them, but gives in by far too soon. The second part is quite different since here, we accompany Willa travelling to Baltimore and taking care of Cheryl and Denise. Even though she was always there for her husbands and sons, Willa does not really seem to be loved and appreciated by them. It is those strangers that give her the impression of being important and needed and what she does is not taken for granted.
Willa is not a perfect woman, she also has her flaws and seems to be rather ordinary in many ways: the life she leads is the one many thousands of women of her generation lead, her view of herself and her place in the world is also shared by millions. She regrets the weak bonds she has with her sister and also with her sons when they are grown up and hardly stay in contact with their mother. However, this does not have to be like this and there is always the chance of escape as Anne Tyler shows. It is not the big sudden decision, but a long and slow process which also has some steps backwards and isn’t easy at all. It is hard not to like the protagonist, even though at times I had the strong urge to push her a bit to stand up for herself, but this would have been completely against her character.
“Clock dance” is a novel narrated in a very lively way. The dialogues as well as Willa’s thoughts seem to be absolutely authentic and easy to imagine. The characters are realistic in the way they are modelled, none of them is really outstanding from the crowd, but this makes them this interesting: Anne Tyler captures those particular aspects, the traits easily to be overlooked that make them loveable and important to someone. Her style of writing is smooth and makes you just rush through the novel. It is one of those novel which do not need the big event or outstanding character but captivates the reader through its authenticity which shows that the average person can make a change.
Anne Tyler's introductory words are puzzling, with too much pointless foreshadowing.
Point of view remains Willa's so we learn nothing about why her two husbands would at all be attracted to her except for her alleged beauty.
Deep love and passion are missing as she makes few decisions beyond simply allowing her hesitant, inoffensive life to happen to her.
Maybe her sons and sister remained distant because they weren't drawn to her unassertive, humorless, and submissive existence.
Eventually readers may become more impatient with her passive responses than impressed by any plot or character development:
"She had had to leave behind an ESL job that she loved..."
"Willa was playing I Doubt It with Cheryl after supper when Peter phoned on the landline."
This is about as exciting as the book gets. Small boring things just happen. Not to mention "had-hads...."
Oddly, when she takes her first airplane flight alone at the ending, she does not think at all about the man who pointed a gun into her ribs.
And, despite making the unexpected choice to remain separated from her husband by staying in Baltimore,
her confidence does not appear to have increased enough that she might, at the very least, report a gun crime.
In this story, we have Willa Drake, a 61-year-old who has always strove to be taken for granted -- after growing up with a sometimes hysterical and abusive mother, Willa believes the best thing she can give her children is consistency and calmness. After being widowed young, and later re-married, she finds that her children (and her younger sister) are distant from her. Her husband has moved her from California and a job she loved to Arizona, where she knows no one. As often happens in Ms. Tyler's novels, a chance encounter, a mistake, a misunderstanding....opens possibilities. In this case, Willa receives a phone call asking her to care for a young girl whose mother has been injured in a shooting. The caller thinks Willa is the child's grandmother, but Willa is no relation and has never met the child nor her mother. Nevertheless, Willa agrees to fly to Baltimore. In Baltimore, Willa begins to realize that she has not been happy and thinks about the choices she's made (more realistically, the things she's allowed to happen). I loved watching her come into her own!
As always, we have wonderful characters, touches of humour and sadness, great writing. I'll be waiting somewhat patiently for Ms. Tyler's next book.
I liked Willa. I felt bad for her because most of the people around her were jerks and she enabled them to continue acting that way. She idolized her father because of the calmness he exhibited when her mother went off the rails. She wanted to be like him in that way. So many others in her life went off the rails like her mother and, like her father, she was the calm but the others walked over her because they knew that Willa would accept them and their behavior and not lash out.
When she gets a call from Baltimore, she goes even though she has no connection to the people involved except her son used to live with the woman. It is here where she finds a purpose and herself. No, she does not go off the rails like her mother but she does finally stop accepting and glossing over the bad behavior. Willa will never be the scream out loud type but she does make her feelings known if you look for the signs.
Willa has always been a good girl, well-behaved, well-mannered, and agreeable. It’s obvious she puts everyone else’s happiness and wishes above her own. She is way too passive, complacent, and eager to please. She is basically just letting life pass her by when she gets a phone call from the neighbor of her son's ex-girlfriend, Denise. The neighbor tells Willa that Denise is in the hospital and wants Willa to come take care of Denise’s eleven year old daughter, Cheryl.
At her husband’s disbelief and disapproval, Willa agrees to fly across the country to Baltimore to help out. I think she goes because she actually feels like someone finally needs her for once. Her sons have little to do with her and her husband is busy with work and she feels bored and unfulfilled.
Willa quickly becomes entangled with Denise and Cheryl and all the other lovely neighbors in the community. All the neighbors are great characters as well. Willa begins to feel like her life has purpose again. She feels needed in Boston. Has she finally found a more meaningful life instead of the one she has always just settled for or will she go back to her regular, boring life of being an obedient wife once Denise is well?
You can never go wrong with Anne Tyler. She continues to writing endearing books!!!!
We follow Willa through several decades--as a child when her mother has some sort of breakdown and leaves for a few days; as a college student; as a widow; and then as a remarried older woman. Her second husband, Peter, drove me crazy--who calls his wife "little one"? But I think that was the point. Willa drops everything to go take care of her son's ex-girlfriend and her daughter (whom she has never met) after the mom is shot. A bit of a misunderstanding led to her being called at all, and her husband is annoyed--but she realizes, why not? She is bored and living where she has few friends.
She learns a lot about herself (and a bit about Peter) while she gets to know the folks on their Baltimore block. And she realizes she likes them, and will miss them.