WILLA DRAKE, the protagonist of Pulitzer Prize–winning author Anne Tyler’s new novel Clock Dance, is a 61-year-old widow who’s suffering the fate of many women her age: she’s still young enough to enjoy new adventures or a second career, but to the outside world she’s just a woman of a certain age with a “flowered chiffon scarf knotted perkily at her throat.” Despite her happiness and material comfort — and a second marriage — Willa has the growing sense that her life is not enough.
And then the phone rings.
It’s the neighbor of her son Sean’s ex-girlfriend Denise, who, Willa is told, has taken a stray bullet in the leg. Willa’s phone number was still on Denise’s emergency contacts list, and Denise needs someone to take care of her nine-year-old daughter, Cheryl, and dog, Airplane. Could Willa, as the mother-in-law, get on a plane right away to help out?
Willa doesn’t correct the neighbor or say she’s the wrong person to call. Instead, she evaluates her life. Ever since she and her second husband, Peter, moved to a golfing community near Phoenix, she’s been restless and unfulfilled. She had to leave her job teaching ESL, which she loved. Peter spends hours each day on the golf course. Her parents are gone, she’s not close to her prickly younger sister, and she’s only in sporadic contact with her faraway sons — products of the marriage to her first husband, who died in a car accident. She doesn’t expect that either of her children will settle down soon, which is a shame because she wants grandchildren more than she admits.
With this in mind, Willa impulsively books a flight to Baltimore and tries to sell the idea to her husband. Peter is a sardonic, fussy, intellectual, semi-retired attorney, and he sees through her explanation that this sudden trip is to help a family in need. They both know the reason is more selfish.
“Oh Peter,” she tells him, “can’t you see my side of this? I haven’t felt useful in … forever!” Peter understands exactly and decides to go with her. He means it as a kindness, but already the reader can see Willa’s wings being clipped. Isn’t this supposed to be her adventure?
Willa and Peter arrive to pick up Cheryl, Denise’s daughter, at a neighbor’s house. She’s in the company of Airplane, her best friend, and the four of them walk to Denise’s rundown house. When Willa expresses concern that Airplane is trotting alongside them without a leash, Cheryl shoots back that he doesn’t need one. Her mother told her that Airplane must have previously belonged to “one of those guys that takes it for granted dogs will do what he tells them to, and so they do.” Tyler, who lives in Baltimore, has an excellent ear for everyday dialogue.
Willa can only wonder at this odd family and the grandchild she has unexpectedly been loaned. Age has mellowed her, and she rolls with the quirks of Cheryl’s home and neighborhood, its rituals and characters. Later that night, she walks Airplane on her own, leashless. It’s the first way she will insert herself into the family’s routine as a step — she subconsciously hopes — toward becoming indispensable.
The next day Willa and Peter take Cheryl to visit Denise in the hospital. While embarrassed by the mix-up — of course she hadn’t intended for her ex-boyfriend’s mother to swoop in and care for her child — Denise mainly seems relieved for the help. In fact, she is curiously lackadaisical about the whole situation: she remains cheerful despite the stray bullet, and she’s unconcerned about the strangers in her house or who watches her kid. She reveals to Willa how Sean broke up with her, and Willa is horrified.
Meanwhile, Peter is bored by the first night. He alternates between watching CNN, pacing the house for a decent wi-fi signal, and complaining. “She hadn’t asked him to come,” Willa thinks but doesn’t say, biting her tongue as usual. This is not Peter’s mission anyway. He has his place in the world — a social life through golf and the law firm he keeps a hand in. It’s Willa who is searching for meaning.
As days go by, Willa feels a kinship with Cheryl, who reveals herself to be independent and preternaturally wise, a “tidy child, with staid, old-ladyish habits.” She’s the only sense of order in the whirlwind of Denise’s home. Willa can relate: “[She] had felt that way during her own childhood, she’d felt like a watchful, wary adult housed in a little girl’s body.”
Then Willa meets the neighbors, who are as colorful and varied as a mosaic and who lift her up in ways that a golf community never will: Mrs. Minton, the old lady who has been on the block forever; Ben, the doctor whose office is tacked onto the back of his house; and Erlandson, an orphaned 15-year-old boy who lives with his older step-brother, the suave Sergio.
When Denise comes home from the hospital, Peter wastes no time making plane reservations. He’s had enough, but, of course, he’s missing the point: Willa doesn’t want to go yet. She’s onto something in Baltimore — something about the neighborhood and sense of community beyond just granddaughter-stand-in Cheryl — and she wants to explore it. It’s not merely that she feels useful. She feels part of something.
She sends Peter home without her, a tiny rebellion.
What do you live for? That’s the question around which the book circles. When Willa’s first husband died, her father told her that he got through the days after her mother died by breaking them up into separate moments: drinking coffee, working in the woodshop, watching a baseball game on TV. Willa tried it, but it didn’t work for her.
One day, she’s gathered with the neighbors — old Mrs. Minton, Ben the doctor — and the question of what to live for comes up. Everyone weighs in, but no one has an answer that rings true for Willa. “Sometimes,” says Mrs. Minton,
it feels so repetitive. You know? Like when I’m getting dressed, I’ll think, these same old, same old colors, I wish I had some new ones […] It seems like I’ve used everything up.
Ben finds comfort in being part of something bigger than himself. “I widen out my angle of vision till I’m only a speck on the globe,” he says.
Willa keeps searching by doing: she teaches Denise how to walk in a cast, cooks every meal, watches kids’ shows with Cheryl. But eventually she realizes her time in Baltimore must end. Denise is getting better and better, and soon they won’t need her anymore: “[Willa] began to look at everyone with an eye to losing them […] Cheryl’s dear, soft, pudgy cheeks, the elegant whorls of fuzz on Airplane’s nose — she dwelt on them, committing them to memory.”
Ultimately, Willa’s hand is forced when her usefulness begins to feel, to Denise, like interference.
Clock Dance rests on an easy fish-out-of-water plot and a contrived narrative trope — Willa wants grandchildren and is magically placed in a situation where she is caring for a substitute — but the story turns into something bigger and unexpected. Willa’s time in Baltimore throws into high relief how her own family — her mother and sister, her sons and husbands — has disappointed her the most. With Cheryl, Denise, and their neighbors, her life expands; she finds salvation in strangers.
Willa’s need to be useful forces a reckoning, and by the book’s end it seems as if her powers have been ratcheted up a notch. She may not yet know life’s meaning, but she’s committed to continuing the search one act, one moment at a time.