When I was in my twenties, I was obsessed with Anne Tyler. At the time, she lived in Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood, about a mile south of my own house, and I would often take a detour down her quiet street, hoping to see her puttering around in her yard. I never did, though. Nor did I ever run into her at Eddie’s Supermarket on Roland Avenue, where she was said to be a regular customer.
My boss at the time happened to be friends with Tyler and her husband, and he once told me that she would always insist on meeting at some nondescript Asian restaurant in a suburb just north of the city. She kept a low profile, able to skip the usual rounds of book tours and interviews that most authors must accept as one of the costs of being privileged to write for a living. Her novels sold very well regardless, and won lots of awards, including a Pulitzer for Breathing Lessons.
Today, Tyler does do the occasional interview, and while I now live far away from Baltimore, I reflexively found myself poring over these articles for clues. It sounds like she moved to the Village of Cross Keys after her husband’s death (“a high-end Rouse development on the edge of Baltimore’s leafy Roland Park neighborhood”). It seems very much in character that her writing room is “so uncluttered and antiseptic you could safely perform surgery there.”
Clock Dance gives Tyler fans exactly what they want from her: a story with a focus on families (biological as well as ones formed by circumstance), beautifully-rendered prose, and a Baltimore backdrop (though the saguaro on the cover may tip you off to the fact that the novel covers some ground before landing in Charm City about a third of the way in). Willa Drake is in her early sixties and on her second marriage; she and her rather fussy husband Peter live in Tucson. They have two sons, both from Willa’s first marriage, neither of whom are particularly close to her, much to her dismay. Neither son has children of his own. Then one day, Willa receives an unexpected phone call from Baltimore.
The caller, Callie, is Willa’s son Sean’s former next-door neighbor; he broke up with his girlfriend Denise some time ago and moved out of her home, but Willa’s number (“Sean’s mom”) remained on the list above her phone. Denise has been shot in the leg and needs to spend a few days in the hospital, leaving no one to care for her nine-year-old daughter, Cheryl. “I say to myself, ‘Okay, I’m just going to call Sean’s mom and ask her to come get her grandchild,'” says Callie, hanging up before a flustered Willa can reply that Cheryl is not actually her granddaughter. Since Willa’s life is rather lacking in excitement, she books a seat on the next available flight to Baltimore.
Peter insists on coming along, but life in an unfamiliar place taking care of a girl who’s no relation doesn’t suit him: “I hate this city… I hate the heat; I hate the humidity; the accent is atrocious… I don’t know what we’re doing here.” Willa, however, bonds quickly with Cheryl and then with Denise, adoring the feeling of being useful for a change. Peter flies back to Tucson, begrudgingly leaving his wife behind, and she continues to become absorbed in the rhythms of everyday life in the neighborhood of “small, dingy white houses with squat front porches, some of them posted with signs for insurance agencies or podiatry offices.” It’s a real community, with neighbors who all know each other and look out for one another (though the mystery of how Denise wound up with a bullet in her leg continues to perplex the residents of Dorcas Road). As Willa gets more and more settled, absorbed into the rhythms of the neighborhood, her life in Tucson seems to recede into the distance.
There is something so genteel about Tyler’s books; most of Clock Dance takes place in 2017, and while there are references to cell phones and Facebook, it doesn’t feel particularly modern or attempt to break any new literary ground. Tyler, now in her mid-70s, has been writing novels for over 50 years now and knows exactly where her strengths lie, and thank goodness for that.
A couple of years ago, Tyler contributed a novel to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which contemporary authors put their own 21st-century spins on the Bard’s immortal works. Vinegar Girl is Tyler’s take on “The Taming of the Shrew,” a rather… problematic play by current standards. It also has a lot of the disguises and mistaken-identity plot points that I often find rather tedious in Shakespeare.
Vinegar Girl does borrow elements from “Shrew”—main character Kate is, indeed, the elder sister to the softer, prettier Bunny (instead of Bianca)—and people who are familiar with the original will find several homages and nods to the play. (Fortunately, no one attempts to wear a disguise.) It’s a fresh and funny rom-com with plenty of clever surprises and plot twists, not quite what I would have expected from Tyler, but not out of character, either (Kate and Bunny’s father, in particular, leads the strictly regimented life of many of the single men who appear in Tyler’s oeuvre). And refreshingly, while Kate does indeed wind up with a man at the end of the book, it is a partnership of equals and not one in which she vows to place her hands below her husband’s foot.