Deceptively simple prose is like a child with an adorable smile: They can both get away with a lot. In a career that began with 1964’s If Morning Ever Comes, Anne Tyler has created one deceptively simple novel after another. Her specialty is the depiction of quiet lives that may seem ordinary at first glance. Upon closer inspection, each book is a subtle analysis of American married life, its joys as well as its darker elements.
Tyler offers yet another astute portrait in Clock Dance. In 1967 Pennsylvania, 11-year-old Willa is the elder daughter of a mild-mannered father and a mother prone to disappearances and bursts of violence. The action then shifts to 1977, when college junior Willa flies home so that her boyfriend, Derek, can meet her parents. After a section set in 1997, in which Derek, now her husband, dies in a car accident, the second half of the book shifts to 2017. Willa is living in Arizona and married to retired lawyer Peter. One day, she gets a call from a stranger in Baltimore, who tells her that Denise, a former girlfriend of her elder son, has been shot in the leg. The woman, Denise’s neighbor, asks Willa to fly out to care for the victim’s 9-year-old daughter, Cheryl, whom the neighbor mistakenly thinks is Willa’s granddaughter.
Tyler fans won’t be surprised to learn that kind-hearted Willa agrees to the request. Her experiences with Denise and Cheryl make up much of the book’s drama. If the concluding pages are more circuitous than necessary, Tyler’s touch is as light and sure as ever. Clock Dance is a tender portrait of everyday people dealing with loss and regret, the need to feel useful and the desire for independence.