Clock Dance is the story of Willa and her clock dance through life. Willa first learns the concept of clock dance when she is 61 years old. But that part of the story comes later in this review. The novel is broken down into life stages.
We first meet Willa in 1967 when she is 11 years old. Willa and her friend Sonya were unsuccessfully selling candy door to door as part of an orchestra fundraiser. When Willa arrives home she discovers that her mother is gone and has taken the family’s only car. Willa is left to take care of her six year old sister Elaine and their kind but befuddled father. During this phase of Willa’s life we learn that her mother is both physically and emotionally abusive, setting the stage for both Elaine and Willa’s future. At one point at school, while pondering her problems at home and observing her classmates, Willa wonders, “Did all these kids come from perfectly happy families? Weren’t any of them hiding something that was going on at home?…They didn’t seem to have a thing on their minds but lunch and friends and lipstick.”
The next chapter in Willa’s life is 10 years later when she is a linguistics student in her junior year at a college in Illinois. She is on her way home for Easter break to introduce her parents to her boyfriend Derek. It is the first time she has been on an airplane. At the airport Derek, a senior getting ready to graduate, asks Willa to marry him. But he wants her to move to California with him, where he already has a job, before she finishes college (where she has a full scholarship).Willa’s preference is to get engaged and marry after she finishes college.
On the airplane Willa is seated in a center seat and a gaunt and whiskery man sits next to her, jabbing a gun into her side. After a while Derek suggests they switch seats and that is the end of the gun incident. When Willa tells Derek about the gun after they land, he does not really believe her. This incident follows her throughout the book.
Willa’s parents are polite with Derek but when he announces that they are getting married (without Willa’s participation in the announcement), her parents are not pleased, expressing concern for Willa’s academic future. Willa’s mother is particularly nonplussed when Derek announces that he hopes to “talk her around” about marrying him before she graduates. Her mother’s disapproval is all it takes for Willa to decide to marry Derek and move to California before she graduates. She never completes her degree.
In 1997, Willa and Derek are driving to a party when Derek cuts off another car. The car strikes them and Derek is killed. Willa is 41 years old and left with two sons, Ian (16 years old) and Sean (18).
In 2017 Willa is living in Tucson with her husband Peter. She receives a telephone call from a neighbor of her son Sean’s ex-girlfriend, Denise. Denise has been shot in the leg and the neighbor is looking for someone to come care for Denise’s 8 or 9 year old daughter Cheryl and their dog Airplane. Although Sean and Denise have been broken up for some time, Willa decides to go and Peter (11 years her senior), grudgingly agrees to join her. Willa immediately becomes immersed in the lives of Denise, Cheryl and Airplane, as well as their neighborhood and day to day activities. She has dinner with Sean who is living in Baltimore with another woman and realizes how detached she has become from the lives of her own sons.
One afternoon she sees Cheryl and her two friends playing a game, all with their arms extended, moving in “stiff, stop and start arcs in time to the clicking sound” in the music they are listening to. This is their clock dance.
Peter ultimately returns to Arizona in disgust. I won’t tell you what Willa does, but toward the end of the novel she thinks that if she were to invent a clock dance it “would feature a woman racing across the stage from left to right, all the while madly whirling so that the audience saw only a spinning blur of color before she vanished into the wings, pouf! Just like that. Gone.”
The book is pure Anne Tyler. Seemingly simple writing and straight forward characters overlaying the complexities of life’s stages, yearnings and realities. I loved the book but am still pondering the meaning of the ending. Maybe you can help me figure it out. You can reserve the book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, by clicking here.