“But Willa knew what she meant. She had felt that way during her own childhood; she’d felt like a watchful, wary adult housed in a little girl’s body. And yet nowadays, paradoxically, it often seemed to her that from behind her adult face a child about eleven years old was still gazing out at the world.”
“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler tells the story of Willa Drake, a woman who recalls the three life-defining years of her life with absolute clarity. Willa’s challenge is to navigate what those moments meant and what lessons there are to be learned.
The book starts with Willa as an 11-year old but with the mind of a 41-year old. Her mercurial mother disappears again but this time for a longer period than previously. Willa tries to create some stability for her younger sister Elaine, while at the same time providing comfort for her mild-mannered father. When her mother reappears and her parents act as if nothing has changed, young Willa decides it’s easier to just go along with it than question the situation.
The book fast forwards to the next life moment when Willa is 21 years old. She’s brought home her strong and decisive college boyfriend, Derek, to meet her family. He wants to get married. She wants to pursue her career then get married afterwards. But when he blurts his intention to the family and Willa’s mother objects, Willa experiences a moment of rebelliousness. She accepts the proposal and puts her own life plans on hold.
By the time we meet up with Willa at 41 years old, she is a dutiful wife and mother. Her life is quiet and a bit banal, with her main duty calming down Derek. She fails to do this during a road rage incident that concludes in tragedy. Willa tries to pick up the pieces and move on with her life, retreating further into a life with no conflicts or hard edges.
The meat of “Clock Dance” happens with Willa as a 61-year old. She’s remarried and living the life of a well-taken care of retiree in Arizona. Willa has handed her life over to new-husband Peter, letting him make all the decisions in their life. Willa can barely drive herself around and Peter is more than happy to be the boss, referring to Willa as “Little One.” Willa is basically a background character in her own life. Then she receives a surprising phone call that takes her to Baltimore, Maryland and a completely new way of living.
In Baltimore, Willa is roped into taking care of her son’s ex-girlfriend who has been shot. Denise and her daughter Cheryl are two more strong characters to enter Willa’s life but instead of taking over for Willa, they embolden and teach her to become a different person. As more and more times goes by, Willa comes to love her life in Baltimore. Then comes a disagreement that sours the whole arrangement.
This is my first experience with an Anne Tyler novel. I love how gracefully she handles her characters and her descriptions of the Baltimore neighborhood were so vivid I could see each tree and person clearly.
I was rooting for Willa from page one (there’s just something about a well written child’s voice). Tyler clearly demonstrates how the incident Willa experienced at 11 years old influenced the rest of her life. With each of Willa’s ages, we see how she has retreated from pain by becoming meek and quiet. And by the time we get to her at sixty-one, she seems to be quite content with her life and personality.
What makes “Clock Dance” so interesting is that we, the reader, are aware of how Willa’s childhood shaped her life but Willa herself is blissfully unaware. And in the very last pages, we suspect that Willa’s lack of self-introspection has been deliberate. As maddening as Willa’s mildness could be, I was rooting for her the minute she got off the plane in Baltimore and celebrated all her independent moments. “Clock Dance” reminds us that you are never too old to find your way and be pleasantly surprised by what life has in store for you.
Thank you for your time!
Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.