It used to be that the world had rested entirely on her father’s shoulders. He was the steady one, the safe one—the person she could depend on when her mother was in a state.
But even the thought of her mother, now, gave her a tugging feeling of loss, and she often found herself missing that shy look her mother used to send from under her eyebrows when she hoped to be forgiven for something, and her lighthearted, girlish laugh, and her floating soprano voice singing, “Write me a letter, send it by mail . . .”
Oh, sounds were what brought the past alive most clearly! “Take my hand,” she heard the back of the room boys crooning, “I’m a strange-looking parasite . . .” And then other, more anonymous voices, blurred and staticky like those ancient radio waves rumored to be traveling endlessly out into space. “One potato, two potato, three potato, four,” and “He-e-re’s Johnny! and “Instinctively, the arthritis sufferer rubs the afflicted area.”
From his bed across the room Peter gave a sudden sharp sigh, and Willa started. It took her a second to remember who he was.
~ Anne Tyler, Clockwork Dance
But your voice– never the rushing Of a river underground, Not the rising of the wind In the trees before the rain, Not the woodcock’s watery call, Not the note the white-throat utters, Not the feet of children pushing Yellow leaves along the gutters In the blue and bitter fall, Shall content my musing mind For the beauty of that sound That in no new way at all Ever will be heard again.
But the music of your talk Never shall the chemistry Of the secret earth restore. All your lovely words are spoken. Once the ivory box is broken, Beats the golden bird no more.
It’s 1967, and two sixth-grade girls are selling candy so Baltimore’s Herbert Malone Elementary School Orchestra can travel to regional competition in Harrisburg. Both girls have “sworn they would absolutely die if they didn’t get to go . . . ”
“Hold the whole carton up when they open the door,” Sonya told Willa. “Not just one candy bar. Ask, ‘Would you like to buy some candy bars?’ Plural.”
“I’m going to ask?” Willa said. “I thought you were.”
“I’d feel silly asking.”
“What, you don’t think I’d feel silly?”
“But you’re much better with grownups.”
“What will you be doing?”
“I’ll be in charge of the money,” Sonya said, and she waved her envelope.
Willa said, “Okay, but then you have to ask at the next house.”
“Fine,” Sonya said.
Of course it was fine, because the next house was bound to be easier. But Willa tightened her arms around the carton, and Sonya turned to lead the way up the flagstone walk.
The house had a metal sculpture out front that was nothing but a tall, swooping curve, very modern. The doorbell was lit with a light that glowed even in the daytime. Sonya poked it. A rich-sounding two-note chime rang somewhere inside, followed by a silence so deep that they could begin to hope no one was home. But then footsteps approached, and the door opened, and a woman stood smiling at them. She was younger than their mothers and more stylish, with short brown hair and bright lipstick, and she wore a miniskirt. “Why, hello, girls,” she said, while behind her a little boy came toddling up, dragging a pull toy and asking, “Who’s that, Mama? Who’s that, Mama?”
Willa looked at Sonya. Sonya looked at Willa. Something about Sonya’s expression–so trusting, so expectant, her lips moistened and slightly parted as if she planned to start speaking along with Willa–struck Willa as comical, and she felt a little burp of laughter rising in her chest and then bubbling in her throat. The sudden, surprising squeak that popped out seemed comical too—hilarious, in fact—and the bubble of laughter turned to gales of laughter, whole water falls of laughter, and next to her Sonya broke into sputters and doubled in on herself while the woman stood looking at them, still smiling with a question smile. Willa asked, “Would you like—? Would you like—?” But she couldn’t finish; she was overcome; she couldn’t catch her breath.
“Are you two offering to sell me something?” the woman suggested kindly. Willa could tell that she’d probably gotten the giggles herself when she was their age, although surely—oh, lord—surely not such hysterical giggles, such helpless, overpowering, uncontrollable giggles. These giggles were like a liquid that flooded Willa’s whole body, causing tears to stream from her eyes and forcing her to crumple over her carton and clamp her legs together so as not to pee. She was mortified, and she could see from Sonya’s desperate, wild-eyed face that she was mortified too, but at the same time it was the most wonderful, loose, relaxing feeling. Her cheeks ached and her stomach muscles seemed to have softened into silk. She could have melted into a puddle right there on the stoop.
Sonya was the first to give up. She flapped an arm wearily in the woman’s direction and turned to start back down the flagstone walk, and Willa turned too and followed without another word. After a moment, they heard the front door gently closing behind them.
They weren’t laughing any more. Willa felt tired to the bone, and emptied and a little sad. And Sonya might have felt the same way, because the sun still hung like a thin white dime above Bert Kane ridge, but she said, “We ought to wait till the weekend. It’s too hard when we’ve got all this homework.” Willa didn’t argue.
I observed in a recent post that Anne Tyler has a tendency to kill my favorite characters (and characters my favorite characters care about). I declare today that if Anne Tyler does that in Clock Dance, she will have much to answer for.
I don’t buy many physical books these days; in the interest of storage space and the planet, I buy ebooks. But reading some books, even those by authors who keep killing off characters I love—especially those who keep killing off characters I love—requires old technology. It’s an emotional thing.
And so today, breaking my own rules, I bought a paperback copy of Clock Dance. I’m up to page sixty-three and already see trouble coming—because Tyler writes about real people and tells the truth. And the thumb on my left hand—I call it my holding-the-book-open thumb—will protest for weeks after its job is done.
What’s worse, I’ll probably cry and my head will get all stuffy.
But as David once told me, “That’s okay. I’m getting used to sad movies.”
So, no matter how many crying towels I go through, I’ll have a warm and fuzzy feeling and memories of being curled up with a good book.
Anne Tyler Clock Dance
Vintage (July 10, 2018)
The last time I wrote about her, I was in a snit. She’d killed off my favorite character halfway through the novel I was reading, and I was not happy.
I’m writing this time because she’s made me laugh. The book is Vinegar Girl, a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and in it she kills no one at all. She must have had a wonderful time writing it.
For a quick recap: Shakespeare’s shrew is Katherina, daughter of Baptista and older sister of the gentle Bianca. Afraid Katherina, whose reputation precedes her, will never receive a proposal, Baptista tells two young men eager to marry Bianca that his older daughter must marry before the younger. The suitors recruit Petruchio to woo Katherina; Katherina resists, but finding him her intellectual equal, agrees to marry him. Then Petruchio sets about “taming” his bride. At the end, Petruchio presents her to the public as the model of a sweet-tempered, obedient wife
Tyler’s Katherina is Kate Battista. Ten years before the story begins, Kate was invited to leave college after telling her botany professor his explanation of photosynthesis was “half-assed.” Her medical research scientist father made no fuss about her expulsion because he agreed the explanation was half-assed.
Since then, Kate has worked as a teacher’s aide at the Charles Village Little People’s School, where she spends a lot of time in Mrs. Darling’s office, being counseled in the need to use tact, diplomacy, and restraint when speaking with parents. For example, when Jameesha’s father asked her to do something about Jameesha’s finger sucking–Jameesha has a “habit of sucking her two middle fingers, with her pinkie and her index finger sticking up on either side like the sign language for ‘I love you'”–Kate told him not to worry: “Chances are she’ll stop soon enough, once her fingers grow so long that she pokes both her eyes out.” Mrs. Darling says she must develop “some social skills. Some tact, some restraint, some diplomacy.” Difficulty navigating the school’s “mysterious” etiquette has Kate on what Mrs. Darling calls “thin ice.”
Kate also runs the household and takes care of her father and her fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. Taking care of her father includes delivering his oft-forgotten lunches to his lab and doing his taxes. Taking care of Bunny includes preventing her from getting too friendly with her “Spanish tutor,” next-door neighbor, Edward Mintz, whose mother says he has “that Japanese disease . . . the one where young people shut themselves in their bedrooms and refuse to go on with their lives.” Bunny, who was normal until about the time she turned twelve, also has the “irksome habit” of “turning declarative sentences into questions.” Bunny isn’t easy to deal with, and Kate has been dealing with her since their mother died, when Bunny was six years old.
Working at a preschool and being a family manager isn’t the life Kate expected to have, but when the story opens, she’s not expecting anything to change. Then her father introduces her to his research assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov.
When they meet, Kate says, “Hi,” but Pyotr says, “Vwwouwv!” That’s the kind of thing men often say when they first see Kate, “due to a bunch of dead cells: her hair, which was blue-black and billowy and extended below her waist.”
(She stopped getting her hair cut when she was thirteen because she couldn’t take any more of the “Chatty Cathy act”:
“In the beauty parlor. Talk, talk, talk; those places are crawling with talk. The women there start going before they even sit down–talk about boyfriends, husbands, mothers-in-laws. Roommates, jealous girlfriends. Feuds and misunderstandings and romances and divorces. How can they find so much to say? I could never think of anything, myself. I kept disappointing the beautician. Finally I went, ‘Shoot. I’ll just quit getting my hair cut.'”)
Then Dr. Battista brings Pyotr home to dinner. And snaps photos of her and Pyotr with his cell phone, which he never uses because he’s a little afraid of it. And tells her that in two months, Pyotr’s visa will expire and he’ll have to leave the country, and he’s the best assistant Dr. Battista has ever had, ever could have, and the whole scientific community knows about Pyotr Cherbakov, and he’s the only one Dr. Battista can possibly work with, and without Pyotr he might as well abandon his research, because it’s doomed . . . unless . . .
“Unless, perhaps, we could get him an . . . adjustment of status.
“Oh, good, get him an adjustment of status.”
She brushed past him and went out to the hall. “Bunny!” she shouted. “Supper’s on!”
“We could adjust his status to ‘married to an American.'”
“Pyotr’s married to an American?”
“Well, not quite yet,” her father said. He trailed her back to the dining room. “But he’s fairly nice-looking, don’t you agree? All those girls working in the building: they seem to find different reasons to talk to him.”
“So he could marry a girl in the building?” Kate asked. She sat down at her place and shook out her napkin.
“I don’t think so,” her father said. “He doesn’t . . . the conversations never seem to develop any further, unfortunately.”
Her father sat down at the head of the table. He cleared his throat. “You, maybe?”
And so it begins. Such fun.
Or maybe not.
Shrews aren’t usually born shrewish. Shakespeare shows that Baptista favors Bianca; it’s no wonder Katherina is out of sorts.
Kate Battista, too, is the daughter of a widowed father who seems to take her for granted while focusing his attention on his younger child. When Pyotr observes Kate is pretty, Dr. Battista says, “You should see her sister.” That must hurt.
And then he makes a heartless request, urges her to marry a man she doesn’t know so he can keep his research assistant.
“I guess I just couldn’t believe my own father would conceive of such a thing. . . . You would never ask Bunny to do this . . . Your precious treasure Bunny-poo.”
The Taming of the Shrew poses a problem for modern audiences: It is misogynistic? Maybe. Maybe not. Some scholars say Katherina isn’t tamed at all, but that she and Petruchio are putting on an elaborate show for the banquet guests and are enjoying every minute of it.
Vinegar Girl poses no such problem. Kate is no Katherina, rife for taming. But after ten years of routine, she suddenly has a lot more to think about than doing taxes and cooking meat mash and keeping Bunny in line. The idea of marrying Pyotr is unthinkable. But it’s so important to her father.
Will she please her father or herself? Can she do both? Will her sense of honor and self-respect survive the ordeal?
Does she have the tact, diplomacy, and restraint to carry her through? Or will her own mysterious etiquette be enough?
And, by the way, where does Pyotr fit into this puzzle?
Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is a delightful romp, part Shakespeare, part Jane Austen, all Anne Tyler. It would make a fine summer read. Or fall. Or winter.
I hate that. I hate the author. I continue to like the book, but the author I despise.
This time it’s Anne Tyler. I love her novels. The Accidental Tourist. Breathing Lessons. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My favorites, if I have favorites, are Back When We Were Grownups and Saint Maybe.
Tyler’s plots are rather loose. Instead of going directly from here to there, they detour, turn corners you didn’t see coming, abandon the now for backstory that might take you a generation or two into the past before returning to the main narrative. “[C]haracter is everything,” Tyler said in an interview. “I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too.”
She writes about families: ordinary, quirky, dysfunctional families–dysfunctional as ordinary families tend to be. They’re humble people, living in ordinary houses, working at ordinary jobs; their furniture is often mismatched and their carpet runners often worn from someone’s pacing. Her families stick together; children and grandchildren don’t stray far, come home often, and sometimes don’t leave at all.
Even their extraordinary problems are ordinary, the kinds of problems real people experience.
Her characters’ days are filled with matters of little importance. “As for huge events vs. small events,” says Tyler, “I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me….It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful.”
She loves to “think about chance–about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe…The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure.”
If her plots meander, it’s because they reflect the common, insignificant, everyday events that are so important, because, taken together, they form the essence of life.
Tyler cares about her characters. “My people wander around my study until the novel is done,” she said in another interview. “It’s one reason I’m very careful not to write about people I don’t like. If I find somebody creeping in that I’m not really fond of, I usually take him out.”
And therein lies my problem, and the reason that Anne Tyler is, for the moment, on my bad list.
She isn’t alone in liking her characters. I like them, too. Some of them, I love. And when one dies–or, as I see it, when she kills one–I take it personally. The character’s family stand around in the kitchen saying all the plain, simple, often awkward, frequently funny things that real people say when someone they love has died. They crowd together in pews to hear a sermon by a minister who didn’t know the loved one and might not know how to pronounce his name. They return home to refrigerators stuffed with casseroles and play host to friends and neighbors until they’re so tired they’re about to drop. Left alone, they get on one another’s nerves and offend with, or take offense at, the most innocent remarks. Then they pick themselves up and go on with their lives.
But I don’t. Because even though I stand outside the novel, reading about people who don’t exist, never have, never will, I know them. I’ve been where they are, said what they say, done what they do. And when I have to go through it one more time, with them–that seriously messes up my day.
Tyler always manages to redeem herself, though. One of her characters says or does something so remarkable, so absolutely right. And the world of the novel shifts. And so does mine.
In the book I’m reading now–I won’t mention the title so as not to spoil it for you–Tyler gives that role to the “disconcertingly young” minister who conducts the funeral. After a friend and a sister-in-law and a fourteen-year-old granddaughter wearing “patent leather heels and a shiny, froufrou dress so short she could have been a cocktail waitress,” have paid tribute to the deceased, he approaches the lectern and does what the deceased wanted–to “say something brief and–if it wasn’t asking too much–‘not too heavy on religion.'”
He starts by saying he didn’t know their loved one and so doesn’t have memories like they have.
But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories–all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth. The hardware store their father owned with the cat asleep on the grass seed, and the friend they used to laugh with till the tears streamed down their cheeks… The spring mornings they woke up to a million birds singing their hearts out, and the summer afternoons with the swim towels hung over the porch rail… and the warm yellow windows of home when they came in on a snowy night. “That’s what my experience has been,” they say, and it gets folded in with the others–one more report on what living felt like. What it was to be alive.
And so Anne Tyler performs her magic. Once more I start bawling. I reconsider. My hostility passes into nothingness. I forgive her. We’re friends again.
I leave the church and go home with the family to a refrigerator stuffed with casseroles, and visit with their friends, and watch them give and take offense but then quickly, or perhaps slowly, repair their relationships, and pick themselves up and go on with life.
Now I have to read the second half of the book. That’s a lot of pages to cover without the character I love. But, like the others, I pick myself up and get on with it.
If I can’t have the character, I can still love Anne Tyler. And I will. And I do.