Book Review: CLOCK DANCE, a woman’s chance to break out of her history of passivity

Tyler, Anne - Clock Dance 2Clock Dance
Anne Tyler

In Clock Dance, Willa was introduced as an eleven-year-old with an abusive and unpredictable mother and passive, accepting father. Ten years later, Willa was a student at Kinney University and brought her boyfriend, Derek, home for Easter vacation to meet her family. He proposed to her–but wanted to get married that summer instead of waiting until she finishes her degree. Twenty years passed, and Willa and Derek lived in California with their two teenage sons. On the way to a party, enraged by another driver on the freeway, Derek drove aggressively causing an accident in which he died.

By 2017, Willa remarried to Peter, a now-retired lawyer, and moved with him to Tucson where he can indulge in his golf hobby. The move required her to resign from her job teaching ESL, and she was feeling slightly adrift. Then she received a phone call from a stranger in Baltimore who told Willa she was caring for her granddaughter, Cheryl, because her ex-daughter-in-law, Denise, had been shot in the leg. The stranger, Callie, a neighbor to Denise and Cheryl, was unable to care for the girl and her dog, Airplane, and needed Willa to come to Baltimore immediately. The problem? Willa didn’t have an ex-daughter-in-law or granddaughter. Her son, Sean, though, had lived with Denise and Cheryl for a time. Instead of correcting Callie, Willa decided to make the trip to Baltimore, and Peter, another controlling man in Willa’s life (who calls her, a sixty-something woman “little one”), joined her.

As Willa stayed in Baltimore through Denise’s recovery, she became close to the woman and her daughter and got to know the characters in the neighborhood, “Sir Joe” (Sergio) and his stepbrother, the awkward teenager, Erland, “Mrs. Mittens,” (Mrs. Minton), Ben, a doctor who runs a clinic from his house, and Hal, who was cuckolded by Sean. Willa’s engagement in the Baltimore neighborhood threatens her marriage with Peter, and her awareness of a neighborhood secret jeopardizes her relationship with Denise and Cheryl. She must decide if she will be the passive, accepting person modeled after her father or if she will advocate for her own desires.

Although the book did discuss serious themes–abuse, poverty, gun violence, and income inequality–in general, it was light-hearted and unexpectedly funny. Willa is compassionate and good-natured, but her passivity made me want to reach in the pages and shake her. Given the narrative arc, the book could really end only one way, but to Tyler’s credit, I was still on pins and needles until the last page wondering what Willa would do.

Overall, this was a well-written and feel-good book, and kudos for having a dog who is simply a part of the family and not imperiled. I was bothered by a few things in the book. The characters often reverted to comments like “men do” or “men are so” in such a way that their observations normalized gender roles rather than challenged them. Also, the book contained a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle fat shaming which seemed so unnecessary. Both Willa and Denise used “soft” cuss words like “durn” and “jeepers”; perhaps this was a method of characterizing them, but it gave the prose an archaic feel at those moments. Finally, the book is about Willa’s transformation. While she does have a pivot point, it is rather abrupt, and I wondered if it was represented too easy.

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