Even if Anne Tyler’s name hadn’t been prominently displayed on the cover, it would nonetheless have been obvious very quickly that the wispy Clock Dance is an Anne Tyler book, with quirky characters, odd family dinners, a fondness for Baltimore, and a protagonist, 62-year-old Willa, who greets an out-of-the-blue opportunity to shake things up with impulsive decisiveness.
Willa is a mild-mannered harmonizer with a lifelong attraction to people who make use of her peacekeeping skills without ever appreciating them, or her. The backstory in the first third of the book attempts to explain how Willa has come to be living rather uncomfortably in Arizona with her pushy retired second husband, wishing she felt needed, even if she doesn’t quite realize it yet. To start, we see Willa as an 11-year-old dealing with a manic mother, a milquetoast father, and a much younger sister. She makes a clear if unconscious choice at that impressionable age to avoid drama at all costs. We are then shown Willa ten years later, bringing the young man who will become her first husband home from college to meet her parents. We see why she makes the choices that she does, but we also see the behaviors that lead to the next scene, twenty years later, when she loses her first husband in a tragic accident.
Fast forward to the present. Willa is going through the motions, newly settled in Arizona, longing for connections but unable to create them for herself. Then comes a shocking phone call: Her older son’s ex-girlfriend Denise has been shot in Baltimore, she’s in the hospital, she has a 9-year-old daughter, Cheryl, who needs to be looked after, and a neighbor is reaching out to Willa, who is mysteriously listed as an emergency contact on Denise’s phone list. Willa doesn’t know the neighbor, the ex-girlfriend, or the ex-girlfriend’s daughter, but she suddenly sees a chance to be useful, and she barely hesitates in booking a flight.
Once Willa arrives in Baltimore and meets her delightful charges, together with the engaging, eccentric neighbors, there are few surprises. But despite its familiarity, her journey is entertaining. Willa is her usual self: cheery and polite and genteel and, yes, maybe a little superficial. Perhaps in this setting, though, her gift for harmony can be appreciated, and she can learn how to achieve balance between everyone else’s needs and her own.
The reader is left to supply much of the detail regarding Willa’s relationships with her sister and two sons, which are at best strained. One can sense their likely frustration with her terminal inability to take a stand against the forceful personalities she attracts. “Marriage was often a matter of dexterity, in Willa’s experience,” Tyler writes, and we are left to wonder if perhaps what Willa saw as dexterity, those closest to her saw as weakness. The reader can feel the pain and bewilderment that the absence of these key figures in her life causes Willa, perhaps driving what would otherwise be some odd choices in Baltimore.
Anne Tyler leaves her beloved Baltimore to work its magic on Willa, in an ending that’s neat, predictable, but satisfying nonetheless. As the book ends, it’s hard to say goodbye to its inhabitants, particularly level-headed young Cheryl, who loves to bake and is a sweet pastry of a character, with much to teach her surrogate grandmother. We leave Willa in a good place, though, learning that family can have many names and faces, and embracing her serendipitous second chance.