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Critical Review by Cathleen Schine
SOURCE: "New Life for Old," in The New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1995, p. 12.
In the following review, Schine praises Tyler's Ladder of Years.
The French have said that William Wyler, the great director of movies like Dodsworth and The Best Years of Our Lives, had a "style sans style." Anne Tyler has this same deceptive "style without a style." Opening one of her books in the middle and picking a page at random, a reader might not immediately recognize her individual rhythm or idiosyncratic temperament. She does nothing fancy, nothing tricky. But so rigorous and artful is the style without a style, so measured and delicate is each observation, so complex is the structure and so astute and open the language, that the reader can relax, feel secure in the narrative and experience the work as something real and natural—even inevitable.
In Ladder of Years, Ms. Tyler's 13th novel, the story that appears to unfold of its own accord is a fairy tale of sorts, a fairy tale with echoes of both the tragedy of King Lear and the absurdity of the modern romance novel.
Delia (short for Cordelia) is the youngest of three sisters. At 40, she has long been married to a kindly doctor who still makes house calls. They live in the large old Baltimore house in which she grew up. Delia's father was also a doctor. When she was 17, Sam Grinstead came to be his assistant and to choose one of the three princesses. "Like the king's three daughters in a fairy tale, he said, they'd been lined up according to age, the oldest farthest left, and like the woodcutter's honest son, he had chosen the youngest and prettiest, the shy little one on the right who didn't think she stood a chance."
And, Delia thinks, it certainly ended like a fairy tale, with the two of them getting married, "except that real life continues past the end." Ladder of Years is the story of what happens past the end, now that her beloved father is dead, her three children are grown (the youngest is a hulking, sullen 15-year-old who sneers at her), and her house has been invaded by workmen invited there by a husband suddenly obsessed with renovation. "She fancied she could hear the house groaning in distress—such a modest, mild house, so unprepared for change."
Delia is herself unprepared for change, yet it waits for her around every corner. Her response is to turn and simply walk away. On her yearly holiday at the beach with her husband and children, her sister Eliza (a committed aromatherapist in a pith helmet) and her divorced sister, Linda (an adamant Francophile who's brought along her twin daughters, Marie-Claire and Thérèse), Delia sits on the sand feeling more and more distant. Her husband irritates her, the way he pats water "so fastidiously on his chest and upper arms before ducking under," then checks his watch as he rises from the waves.
She also thinks of the younger man she met at the supermarket, who asked her to pretend to be his girlfriend because he'd just spotted his ex-wife in the next aisle. They see each other after that, though the relationship doesn't advance very far. Still, for Delia it is an awakening. "Whenever she imagined running into Adrian, she was conscious all at once of the light, quick way she naturally moved, and the outline of her body within the folds of her dress. She couldn't remember when she had last been so aware of herself from outside, from a distance."
But this consciousness of herself, of a body and a soul with outlines not defined by her pretty, pastel clothes, is not entirely new for Delia. There is a wonderful awareness in this book of how women, even little girls, self-consciously act out their roles, watching themselves as they serve tea, as they play picturesquely with their dolls. Delia now watches herself get up from the beach and walk away. She watches herself leave her family without a word, hitch a ride to a new town, buy a new dress in a new style, find a job and a room in a boardinghouse. "She climbed the stairs, thinking. Here comes the executive secretary, returning from her lone meal to the solitude of her room. It wasn't a complaint, though. It was a boast. An exultation."
If the reader is never quite sure why Delia deserts her life, neither is Delia herself. All she can say to explain herself when her family finally tracks her down is, "I'm here because I just like the thought of beginning again from scratch." This Cordelia is not asked for a declaration of her love in order to prove herself to anyone. No one casts her out to wander on the moors like Lear, either. But she casts herself out, strips herself bare and exiles herself in the scrappy little town of Bay Borough, and it is she who tests the love of her family, she who waits for a declaration.
Ms. Tyler's style of small, perfect observation mirrors Delia's attentiveness to detail, which only very gradually allows her to see what's really around her. But for Delia, and for us, the discreet observations are almost physically satisfying. "For her walk," Ms. Tyler writes, "she wore her Miss Grinstead cardigan, which clung gently to her arms and made her feel like a cherished child." And that reassurance extends to readers, allowing us to enjoy the walk even when, like Delia, we're not sure where we're going.
In Bay Borough, the new, ascetic Miss Grinstead, who has left behind the complications of her life, finds new complications—in other words, she finds a new life. At first, she is "alone, utterly alone, without the conversational padding of father, sisters, husband, children." But soon her isolation is compromised. The people she meets, so different in manners and background from those in her usual milieu, appeal to her, and they like her. Looking for a job, she is interviewed by a divorced man seeking a housekeeper; he and his young son want her, and insist that she join their family. There is even a stray cat whom she valiantly resists, but he insists on becoming her cat. Delia has walked away from one fairy tale right into another.
Anne Tyler's dissociated characters have always been in danger of becoming annoying and a little boring, just like real unresponsive people. One sometimes has an urge to poke them—hard. In Ladder of Years, Ms. Tyler herself gives a playful poke, seeing Delia's defection from life partly as farce. Cordelia Grinstead tests her family's love, wandering into the wilderness stripped of everything—except a ruffled bathing suit. And then the family's reaction is just as laconic and dissociated as Delia's decision to disappear. Baffled, hurt and passive, her various relatives decide not to invade her privacy. "Just sit back and give up on her," Delia thinks, "as if she were a missing pet or mitten or dropped penny!" When, after a year and a half, she does return home for a visit, as a guest at a wedding at her own house, she discovers many changes, but few discussions. "Mom," her younger son says, "could we just eat?" The woman with the doomed Shakespearean name throws a tragedy and nobody comes, for Ladder of Years is a comedy, generous and humane.
The novel examines marriage—there are all sorts of marriages Delia comes across in her adventures, good and bad—as well as aging and independence, but finally it is a book about choice. All those years ago, Sam chose Delia, the youngest sister, the one on the right. But whom did Delia choose? Pulled yet repelled by her past, by her complicated and idiosyncratic family, and lured by a new town with a new complicated and idiosyncratic family, what will Delia choose now?
Like the cats Ms. Tyler describes throughout the novel, Delia Grinstead circles and sidles. "He ducked beneath the bureau and returned with linty whiskers," Ms. Tyler writes of the stray Delia has brought home. "He approached the bed obliquely, gazing elsewhere. Delia turned her head away. A moment later she felt the delicate denting of the mattress as he landed on it. He passed behind her, lightly brushing the length of his body against her back as if by chance. Delia didn't move a muscle. She felt they were performing a dance together, something courtly and elaborate and dignified." It is this dance, subtle, passionate and oddly passive, that Anne Tyler creates with such ease and grace.
This section contains 1,425 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)