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Anne Tyler’s Latest Heroine Quits Cushy Arizona for Quirky Baltimore

A good portion of Tyler’s 22nd novel, “Clock Dance,” takes place in Baltimore, the author’s adopted hometown and one she’s made use of in many previous novels, including 1988’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Breathing Lessons” and 2015’s “A Spool of Blue Thread.” Unlike in those books, whose characters mostly lived comfortably, here the setting itself is a little unsettled; Willa and her husband, Peter, arrive from their pristine Arizona retirement to a disheveled stretch of “small, dingy white houses with squat front porches, some of them posted with signs for insurance agencies or podiatry offices.” The block, it soon becomes clear, is kind and quirky but a little off-kilter: a Baltimore neighborhood that could be the offspring of Mr. Rogers and John Waters. Here, in one of those little houses, live Denise (the former girlfriend), Cheryl (her daughter) and Airplane (yet another of Tyler’s very real and lovable fictional dogs).

[ Read Charles McGrath’s profile of Anne Tyler ]

Like Dickens, Tyler sketches a well-peopled larger community, bustling with friends, lovers and bit players. But the book’s real action centers on Willa and how, in lending Denise and especially Cheryl some of her steadiness and predictability, she reclaims something of her younger self: a bolder, messier person than the superficial one she’d become, the “cheery and polite and genteel” woman who ended up living near a golf course and wearing expensive clothes. The title comes from a game Willa watches Cheryl and two friends playing: the girls’ arms all arms of a human clock, ticktocking through a summer afternoon. In the world of children, and of a newly chosen family, Willa finds herself altered — or, perhaps, finds her unalterable self.

Despite her many accolades, Tyler is sometimes dismissed for her books’ readability, for their deeply familiar pleasures. And she can occasionally spout a cliché (“Sometimes Willa felt she’d spent half her life apologizing for some man’s behavior”). However, it’s usually the kind of line that’s a cliché because it’s true. When I told a friend I was reading Anne Tyler, she said, “Oh, my mother loves her books!” In the world of serious literature, this is not a raving endorsement. But, just like Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House,” the novels of Anne Tyler seem simple because she makes the very difficult look easier than it is. Her books are smarter and more interesting than they might appear on the surface; then again, so are our mothers.

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