Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ladder of Years (1995)

This one seemed to me something of a disappointment, I think mostly because I've come to have such high expectations of Anne Tyler. It starts out well, and continues well, but the resolution doesn't seem to me to work. Probably there's no resolution that could, all things considered, but Tyler is good enough that maybe I have just come to expect miracles. The story is about Delia Grinstead, a Baltimore housewife of 40 who feels taken for granted by her family (because she is). On the family's annual summer trek to the seashore she goes off on her own for a walk in her beach robe and sandals and suddenly decides to keep walking. She ends up in a small town inland where, almost as if she is sleepwalking, she begins to cobble together a new life for herself—finds a room, clothes, a job, just keeps on staying there, almost in spite of herself, as the summer ends and autumn and winter arrive. Gradually her whereabouts become known to her family but it's some time before anyone shows up, and then there's less any consideration for why she might be doing what she's doing and more an attitude of wondering if she plans to stop being crazy. In the meanwhile, she is building a life there, afforded the opportunity to try on or emphasize new and different aspects of her personality. For example, she starts out as a starchy, even severe, secretary at a law firm where she is considered ultra efficient. Inevitably, because she is a typical Tyler character who simply loves people and can't help connecting with them, she begins to build a set of friends and acquaintances who rely on her and on whom she relies too—"support network," is the term of art. In the process, she demonstrates to herself, and of course to readers, just how competent and well put together she actually is, in case we had any doubts. Gradually she falls in with a single father and his son and the potential for deeper connections grows to be distinctly more than a possibility. At that point, like Huck Finn and Jim crossing into the slave territory, the directions in which the story can go are alarmingly closed down. It's hard to know what's better or worse for Delia, shucking everything off willy-nilly from an old life and moving on, trying to make peace somehow with that damaged old life, or simply withdrawing into isolation. Tyler makes her choice—she would probably argue that Delia makes her choice—because a choice must be made. Until then, it's Tyler the way we know and love her, full of characters as strange as they are real, with all their charming, maddening warts and foibles.

In case it's not at the library.

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