Tyler’s 22nd novel brims with the qualities that have brought her legions of fans and high critical acclaim. Characters pulse with lifelikeness. The tone flickers between humorous relish and sardonic shrewdness. Dialogue crackles with authenticity. Beneath it all is an insistence that it’s never too soon to recognize how quickly life can speed by and never too late to make vitalizing changes. Unillusioned but uncynical, fascinated by family dynamics and the tension between independence and involvement, Clock Dance is a warmly appealing tale of timely recuperation.
One of Ms. Tyler’s most appealing talents is difficult to illustrate in brief, as it’s typically the happy outcome of page after page of careful accretion: a gift for evoking the moment when the heart goes out, when a mute call for sympathy sparks a responsive note in another’s breast ... Clock Dance is a double Cinderella story. Readers will quickly gather that Willa has embarked—willy-nilly, not always consciously—on a psychic transformation. What clarifies more slowly is that Cheryl is likewise metamorphosing ... If Willa’s journey is ultimately less moving than, say, Macon’s in The Accidental Tourist, I blame Peter, Willa’s husband. He’s a good provider, I suppose, and intelligent and good-looking. But there’s nothing formidable about him, and Willa’s gradual emancipation from his self-absorption and condescension lacks the drama that might arise were he more oppressor than pest.
Unfortunately, Tyler doesn’t supply many incidents as unsettling as that encounter with the real or imagined hijacker. Instead, the first half of Clock Dance skates through the decades of Willa’s life, from childhood to motherhood to widowhood. Characters are introduced and cast off the way one might rifle through old clothes in the attic—with the same amused sense of familiarity. If these chapters aren’t wholly engaging, at least they’re great for Anne Tyler Bingo Night ... Even as the story moves into the 21st century, it still feels fusty, like an antique speculation about how people might live in the year 2017 ... Still, despite those sepia tones, Clock Dance finally starts to work in its second half when all its largely superfluous foundation-setting is mercifully finished ... Tyler’s novels may feel too conciliatory toward the strictures of domestic life, too free of erotic energy to be feminist works, but her stories are often concerned with the central challenge of the feminist movement: How to imagine and then inhabit possibilities beyond those circumscribed by convention?