Ladder of Years | Critical Review by Roberta Rubenstein

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Ladder of Years.
This section contains 1,072 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Roberta Rubenstein

Critical Review by Roberta Rubenstein

SOURCE: "The Woman Who Went Away," in Chicago Tribune Books, April 30, 1995, p. 1.

In the following review, Rubenstein praises Tyler's Ladder of Years as "virtually flawless."

Anne Tyler's wonderfully satisfying 13th novel begins with a newspaper headline: "BALTIMORE WOMAN DISAPPEARS DURING FAMILY VACATION." The accompanying news item includes the few facts related to the sudden disappearance of Cordelia Grinstead, whose eyes are "blue or gray or perhaps green…." Then Tyler circles back to let us see the circumstances that trigger Delia's unpremeditated decision to vacate her current life—withouteven saying goodbye—to assume a new one.

The wife of a successful doctor (a family practitioner 17 years older than she) and the mother of three adolescent children, Delia still lives in the same house in which she grew up as the youngest of three daughters. Her father, also a doctor (recently deceased) left his practice to his younger partner, Delia's no-nonsense husband, Sam. Working informally as Sam's secretary and receptionist and reading romance novels in her spare time, Delia has begun to wonder whether her husband married her only to secure a future in her father's established medical practice. Turning 40 as her children begin to drift away into lives of their own, she feels both expendable and utterly taken for granted by her family.

The event that propels Delia from one life into another is her chance encounter in a grocery store with a young man whose own wife has recently left him. Having spotted his wife and her current partner in a nearby aisle, the stranger impulsively asks Delia to pretend she's with him. Ladder of Years is full of such chance moments and full of dissatisfied wives (and husbands) and of women who have left their marriages either literally or emotionally, temporarily or permanently.

Some weeks later, during a family vacation at the Delaware seashore, Delia starts to walk away from the beach and—wearing only her swimsuit and her husband's robe—keeps traveling until she finds herself miles away, in a small town in Maryland. Much of the narrative traces her efforts to shed her former life and start over again at a new location, not only on the map but also within herself.

That process, recounted detail by fascinating detail, is utterly compelling in Tyler's hands—more so because Delia's story taps a fantasy that many people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit to harboring on occasion: the wish to escape, to shed one's responsibilities, to jettison the complexities of one's current life and establish a new life somewhere else on simpler terms.

Taking a room in a boarding house and locating a job as a secretary, Delia establishes new routines and savors her spartan new life as "Miss Grinstead": only two changes of clothes; a room so bereft of personal possessions that she can look around and "detect not the slightest hint that anybody lived there"; a town so small that, before long, everyone from cooks at the local diner to young mothers with their toddlers at the park recognizes and welcomes her.

But can anyone become "a person without a past?" Inevitably, members of Delia's family discover her whereabouts, write to her and even visit, trying to fathom the reasons for her abrupt departure. Delia stubbornly clings to the new life and self she has begun to create, feeling as if she is "clearing out her mind to see what was left. Maybe there would be nothing." Instead, she discovers that her new life begins to resemble the one she thought she'd shed. She even acquires a stray kitten whose ingratiating habits recall those of the cat she left behind.

Other responsibilities follow. Delia's shift to a second job as a "live-in woman" for a man whose wife has left him and their pre-adolescent son may seem almost too obvious a plot twist, a variation on Delia's abdication of her own marriage. But through it, Tyler shows us Delia's further self-discovery in a position once-removed from her habitual roles.

Both her employer—a high school principal whose pet peeve is creeping slang—and his son cherish Delia rather than taking her for granted, while she enjoys occupying a position that is less than but akin to a wife and mother. Through their regard, she finds herself becoming a more capable and necessary person than she had felt with her own family, "a woman people looked to automatically for sustenance."

Delia's new life in a small town introduces her (and us) to a group of unforgettable characters, including Belle Flint, Delia's flamboyant landlady, who longs for precisely the kind of life Delia has discarded: husband, family, commitments. Unfortunately, Belle is mostly attracted to ineligible men. As she reflects, "… it's kind of like I lack imagination. I mean, I can't seem to picture marrying a man till I see him married to someone else. Then I say, 'Why! He'd make a good husband for me!'"

Another wonderful creation is Nat, grandfather of Delia's surrogate son, who lives in a retirement home but possesses the spirit of a much younger man. During the course of the narrative, the widowed Nat marries a lively divorcee half his age and (rather bemusedly) fathers a child, thus unsettling the "ladder of years" that structures the living arrangements—and age-based assumptions—of Senior City's residents.

Inevitably, Delia's two lives begin to collide in ways I won't spoil by revealing here. Suffice it to say that eventually one realizes her story is not only about the peaks and troughs of relationships but also about their intersections with time. Delia wonders "how humans could bear to live in a world where the passage of time held so much power"—and her midlife crisis allows Tyler to explore a real-world form of time-travel. Who, after all, wouldn't like to return to certain moments in the past and play out the choices differently? Then there is the fear of being trapped in time-in routines and relationships that leave the self calcified.

It is to reclaim her true/lost self that Delia vacates her life. But in this spellbinding story, she also comes to confront the inevitable grievances and losses that accumulate as people age, parents die, marriages evolve, children grow up.

Perhaps Tyler permits Delia too few dark moments or backward glances. (Wouldn't a mother who abandons her children feel more than a few qualms?) Otherwise, though, Ladder of Years is virtually flawless, a book that leaves one unsure until virtually the final page which of Delia Grinstead's two lives will claim her.

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This section contains 1,072 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Roberta Rubenstein
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