Clock Dance by Ann Tyler

Later, crossing the upstairs hall with a basket of laundry, Willa glanced into Cheryl’s room to see what they were up to. Patty stood facing her, both arms extended from her sides, with Laurie and Cheryl directly behind her. All that showed of Laurie and Cheryl were their own arms, extended too so that Patty seemed to possess six arms, all six moving in stiff, stop-and-start arcs in time to the clicking sounds that Willa could hear now punctuating the music. “It’s a clock dance!” Cheryl shouted, briefly peeking out from the tail end. “Can you tell?” ( P. 207)

If Willa were to invent a clock dance, it wouldn’t look like the one the three little girls had shown her. No, hers would feature a woman racing across the stage from left to right, all the while madly whirling so that the audience saw only a spinning blur of color before she vanished into the wings, pouf! Just like that. Gone. (P. 274)

How I love Ann Tyler’s novels. Her characters are quirky and lovable; they make me want to jump into their lives and have dinner together. They seem to embody all the joy and sorrow that living entails. Somehow, her heroines are gentle and fierce at the same time.

So it is with Willa, whom we meet as an elementary age schoolgirl, taking care of her sister as her mother is completely undependable. Their mother is an emotional maelstrom, coming and going at her own whim, but never fully exhausting their father’s patience.

We follow Willa to college, to her marriage to Dexter, to the birth of their two sons. And then the second half of the novel is dedicated to Willa in her sixties. She has flown to the aid of her youngest’s sons ex-girlfriend, who had been shot and needs care. The neighbor found Willa’s number written on the wall above the phone, and so Willa goes to care for Denise, and more particularly, Denise’s daughter, Cheryl.

They form a bond unlike any Willa has had since her father or Dexter. Her sons don’t seem to love her. Her mother didn’t show love to her. Her sister doesn’t love her. They don’t need her, or give back to her. But, Cheryl needs her. While Willa stays, caring for Cheryl and her mother, we see that relationships can be formed more closely with people who aren’t related to us, than those who are. We see that Willa saves Cheryl, but Cheryl saves Willa, too.

Clock Dance is a beautiful novel, as only Ann Tyler can write, and I loved it.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

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There’s something about Anne Tyler’s books which is like sitting down to Sunday dinner. They are warm, and comforting, and resonant of home even if the home doesn’t exactly resemble one’s own. Within the pages I quickly become lost into the mood she spins: often quirky, often mellow, always tender. The significance of the plot begins to melt away as I absorb the characters’ lives and wonder how it is that they seem to express exactly what I feel.

We may remember The Accidental Tourist. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Back When We Were Grownups. Or, my personal favorite, Breathing Lessons, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. So with eager anticipation I read A Spool of Blue Thread, published just two days ago on February 10, 2015.

The novel opens with Denny, a young man in whom I could easily envision my brother. Or, my son. He hangs up the phone after delivering astonishing news, leaving his parent wondering yet again where this trouble might lead, and just when it is, exactly, that they might hear from him again. The whole first part is dedicated to the actions of unreliable Denny, unwilling-to-answer-for-anything Denny, and I am half assuaged that there is another person who brought to his parents the discomfort my own son has sometimes created for me. Even if this person is fictional.

Then abruptly, we open Part 2 to read the history of Denny’s paternal grandparents. We learn the background story of the Whitshank family, how they brought themselves up through sheer determination and hard work from the Depression to owning the home that Denny’s grandfather longed for from the moment he set his eyes on it.

And all along the way, I am entranced by Abby, Denny’s mother. She is so loving, so warm, so outgoing, that she thinks nothing of inviting the “orphans” to dinner; those who are lonely, or newly arrived to America, or somehow struggling to find their way. This drives her children crazy. They don’t understand her, they are embarrassed by her, and all the time I’m thinking, “I wish that was that generous of spirit, in action not just word.”

I am connected to these characters. I feel I could be one of Abby and Red’s children, fumbling around with Stem, Jeannie, Amanda and Denny as they go to the family beach vacation, or sit around the dinner table reminiscing over their childhood, or wondering what to do as their parents’ fragility becomes an issue that must be resolved. Abby is forgetful, like there’s a hitch in time she explains. Red is hard of hearing, misunderstanding conversations or staying out of them altogether. When Stem, the eldest, and his wife and children move in to take care of the aging couple, no one is more surprised than I, that Denny comes too, demanding why he wasn’t asked first to be the care-taker.

For ultimately, family is family. The thread that ties us together cannot be broken. It may be fragile. It may be thin. But it comes from a spool that represents history, a specific history of events and imperfect love that is the foundation of every family.

Thank you to Random House for this novel which I read in only a few days, a novel that is beautiful to its very last page, written as only Anne Tyler could do.