Posts Tagged ‘Breathing Lessons’

There’s something comfortably reassuring about Anne Tyler’s new novel Clock Dance (Knopf, digital galley), like turning down a road in your old neighborhood and seeing that not much has changed. The tree on the corner may be taller, but the neighbor’s house still needs a lick of paint. It’s all familiar — the gray cat crossing the yard, the light slanting across the front porch, the geraniums on the steps. You can’t help but smile.

So why is there a giant cactus on the cover? That’s not something you see every day in Baltimore, Tyler’s home turf and the setting of such well-loved novels as The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons. Not to worry. Instead of having a character leave Baltimore in search of adventure, Tyler has Willa Drake departing her Arizona home for a shabby street in blue-collar Baltimore.

But before this we meet Willa at significant intervals in her life: as a 1967 schoolgirl whose mother has apparently walked out on the family; as a 1977 college student on a plane with her new fiance; as a 1997 widow, her controlling husband dead in a road rage accident. Skip forward 20 years, and Willa has remarried and is living in an Arizona golf neighborhood. While stuffy husband Peter golfs, Willa, having given up her teaching job, whiles away the time on mundane tasks. She’s actually sorting headbands when she gets a phone call bidding her to come to Baltimore to take care of her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise’s 9-year-old daughter Cheryl. Denise has been hospitalized with a stray bullet in her leg, and Willa has been mistaken for the grandmother who will drop everything and take care of a child she’s never met. Goodness!

Now Tyler’s cooking, and Willa comes into her own, getting to know the oddball neighbors, finding a kindred spirit in self-possessed Cheryl, listening to Denise fret about her shattered love life, and gracefully shuffling Peter to the background. There really are no villains in a Tyler novel. Some people are obtuse, even selfish, but the true enemy is time, ticking away the moments. Tyler, with her generous view of human nature and an affinity for illuminating what might be considered ordinary lives, alerts us to the moments and how they add up. Clock Dance is a very nice book in our not-so-nice times.



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spoolThe Whitshank home on Baltimore’s Bouton Road is a clapboard family house, “plain-faced and comfortable .  . . Tall sash windows, a fieldstone chimney, a fanlight over the door. But best of all, that porch: that wonderful full-length porch.”

This house is at the heart of Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf, e-galley), a novel as comfortable and welcoming as that gigantic porch. With characteristic ease, Tyler draws readers in to meet the Whitshank clan, which like all families, thinks itself special, spinning its own mythology out of shared history and stories. One story is how Junior, a self-made contractor out of the West Virginia mountains, built the house for another family in the mid-1930s but eventually moved into it with wife Linnie Mae, daughter Merrick and son Red. Another concerns how Merrick schemed to get away from the house by stealing another girl’s rich boyfriend.

Tyler assures us the Whitshanks are ordinary folk. Their talent for pretending everything is fine isn’t just a quirk. “Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”

Methinks Tyler doth protest too much. Tyler has made a career — this is her 20th novel — of illuminating the ordinary so it becomes extraordinary. Her characters both charm and exasperate with their mild eccentricities as they negotiate domestic life, which Tyler depicts as both rich and interesting. Readers will recognize the familiar territory, relish the generous details. Here is Breathing Lessons grown old.

The book is divided into four parts. The first introduces the present-day Whitshanks. Laconic Red and effusive Abby are in their 70s, and their four grown children can no longer pretend that everything is fine at the house on Bouton Road. Red has slowed down significantly since a recent heart attack, and Abby has memory slips. Daughters Amanda and Jeannie, both married to men named Hugh, concur with youngest son Stem that he and his family will move in to look after Red and Abby. Then prodigal slacker son Denny, who has dropped in and out of family life for years, moves home, announcing that he will take care of things and why does everyone think he is unreliable, anyway? The list is so long as to afford chuckles if not for the long-held rivalries and secrets bubbling to the surface. An accident changes everything, and the Whitshanks begin to unravel.

Tyler abruptly time-shifts to July of 1959 and “the beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning” when teens Abby and Red begin their courtship at the Whitshank house. The family is preparing for Merrick’s wedding, and as Abby helps usually quiet Linnie Mae in the kitchen, she learns a surprising fact about her future in-laws. It’s a hint of what’s to come in part three, another extended flashback, this time to Junior and Linnie Mae’s early days in Baltimore. Fascinating stuff, and it goes a long way toward explaining Junior’s attachment to the house.

In the end, Tyler returns to present-day, tying up loose ends at the Whitshank house. It’s almost Halloween so the porch is decorated, as always, with a row of six ghosts made of rubber balls tied up in gauzy white cheesecloth that wafts in the breeze. “The whole front of the house took on a misty, floating look.”

It’s one of those indelible images that Tyler is so good with. Another finds the Whitshanks on their annual trip to the beach, where they observe the next-door neighbors year after year and how they change as time marches on. Abby has yet to venture into the water this vacation. “In her skirted pink swimsuit, her plump shoulders glistening with suntan lotion and her legs lightly dusted with sand, she looked something like a cupcake.”

And then there’s Junior, who, after he finally gets the house of his dreams, starts beginning every sentence with “In this house.”

“In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even though the Whitshanks could not have possibly started out Episcopalian. So ‘this house’ really meant ‘this family,’ it seemed. The two were one and the same.”




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