The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Clock Dance
Clock Dance
A Novel
by Anne Tyler

Paperback (30 Apr 2019), 304 pages.
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN-13: 9780525563020

A delightful novel of one woman's transformative journey, from the best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother's sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she yearns to be a grandmother but isn't sure she ever will be. Then, one day, Willa receives a startling phone call from a stranger. Without fully understanding why, she flies across the country to Baltimore to look after a young woman she's never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and their dog, Airplane. This impulsive decision will lead Willa into uncharted territory--surrounded by eccentric neighbors who treat each other like family, she finds solace and fulfillment in unexpected places. A bewitching novel of hope, self-discovery, and second chances, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.


The phone call came on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-July. Willa happened to be sorting her headbands. She had laid them out across the bed in clumps of different colors, and now she was pressing them flat with her fingers and aligning them in the compartments of a fabric-covered storage box she'd bought especially for the purpose. Then all at once, ring!

She crossed to the phone and checked the caller ID: a Baltimore area code. Sean had a Baltimore area code. This wasn't Sean's number, though, so of course a little claw of anxiety clutched her chest. She lifted the receiver and said, "Hello?"

"Mrs. MacIntyre?" a woman asked.

Willa had not been Mrs. MacIntyre in over a decade, but she said, "Yes?"

"You don't know me," the woman said. (Not a reassuring beginning.) She had a flat-toned, carrying voice—an overweight voice, Willa thought—and a Baltimore accent that turned "know me" into "Naomi," very nearly. "My name is Callie Montgomery," she said. "I'm a neighbor of Denise's."


"Denise, your daughter-in-law."

Willa didn't have any daughters-in-law, sad to say. However, Sean used to live with a Denise, so she went along with it. "Oh, yes," she said.

"And yesterday, she got shot."

"She what?"

"Got shot in the leg."

"Who did that?"

"Now, that I couldn't tell you," Callie said. She let out a breath of air that Willa mistook at first for laughter, till she realized Callie must be smoking. She had forgotten those whooshing pauses that happened during phone conversations with smokers. "It was just random, I guess," Callie said. "You know."


"So off she goes in the ambulance and out of the goodness of my heart I take her daughter back to my house, even though I don't know the kid from Adam, to tell the truth. I hardly even know Denise! I just moved here last Thanksgiving when I left my sorry excuse for a husband and had to rent a place in a hurry. Well, that's a whole nother story which wouldn't interest you, I don't suppose, but anyhow, I figured I'd be stuck with Cheryl for just a couple of hours, right? Since a bullet in the leg didn't sound all that serious. But then lo and behold, Denise had to have an operation, so a couple of hours turns into overnight and then this morning she calls and tells me they're keeping her in the hospital for who-knows-how-much-longer."

"Oh, dear ..."

"And I'm a working woman! I work at the PNC Bank! I was already dressed in my outfit when she called. Besides which, I am not used to dealing with children. This has been just about the longest day of my life, I tell you."

Willa had known that Denise was a single mother, although she'd forgotten how old the child was and she had only a vague recollection that the father was "long gone," whatever that was supposed to mean. Helplessly, she said, "Well ... that does sound like a problem."

"Plus also there is Airplane who I think I might be allergic to."

"Excuse me?"

"So I go over to Denise's house and check the numbers on the list above her phone—doctors and veterinarian and whatnot—thinking I will call Sean if I have to although everybody knows Denise wouldn't even let him back in the house that time to pack his things, and what do I see but where she's written 'Sean's mom' so I say to myself, 'Okay, I'm just going to call Sean's mom and ask her to come get her grandchild.' "

Willa couldn't imagine why her number would be on Denise's phone list. She said, "Actually—"

"What state is this, anyhow?"


"What state is area code five-two-oh?"

"It's Arizona," Willa said.

"So, do you think you could find yourself a flight that gets in this evening? I mean, it must be afternoon for you still, right? And I am losing my mind here, I tell you. I cannot wait to set eyes on you. Me and Cheryl and Airplane all three—we'll have our noses pressed to the window watching out for you."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Clock Dance by Anne Tyler. Copyright © 2018 by Anne Tyler. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Below are six questions designed to guide your discussion of Anne Tyler's new novel Clock Dance. They are only a starting point, and we hope they'll inspire your group to further conversation about the book and much more.

  1. Why do you think Anne Tyler began the story where she did? What do we learn about Willa by first meeting her as a little girl?
  2. What do you make of the stranger on the plane? How would you respond in Willa's position? In Derek's? Have you ever had an experience that felt like this one? How did you want your family and friends to react?
  3. Why do you think the cactus is so important to Willa? Are there symbols or landmarks in your own life that give you such powerful feelings?
  4. If the book were instead focused on the life of another main character or Baltimore neighbor, which one would you most like to read about? What would their personal journey be?
  5. Compare Willa's two marriages, as well as her feelings towards her sons. How has caring for different men shaped her life? How do you think these relationships affect the choices she makes in the second half of the book?
  6. Now that you've finished, why do you think the author chose these particular moments in Willa's life to highlight? How do they make her the person she becomes, and where do you think she ends up?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Anne Tyler's latest involves a woman on a journey of self-discovery in the vibrantly-depicted city of Baltimore.

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Of the 25 First Impression readers who submitted reviews for Anne Tyler's Clock Dance, 22 gave it a four- or five-star rating, for an impressive overall score of 4.4 out of 5 stars.

What it's about:
Like many of Tyler's novels, Clock Dance is a story about ordinary people living ordinary lives (Christine D). Readers first meet the main character, Willa Drake, when she is a child and follow her through the significant events in her life. It quickly becomes obvious that she has lived primarily as a people-pleaser (Mary M). It is not until she's in her 60s that Willa blossoms, as she unexpectedly finds herself embraced by a community that truly needs and values her (Julia E). This change allows her to take stock of her life and decide what road she really wants to take and which people she wants to include in the journey (Jean N). Tyler invites you into a world that you don't want to leave. You become comfortable right from the beginning and want to stick around to see what happens (Kathryn H).

The novel appeals to Tyler's fans:
It's Anne Tyler, of course it's good! I would say it's one of her best books, better than her last two (Kathryn H). She suffuses her quirky characters with so much compassion and understanding that they come alive on the page. Now in her 70s, Tyler still imparts lessons about the glory of living. As long as she keeps writing, I'll keep reading (Jill S). Those who love her work — and I do — will rejoice in all the familiar nuances of her oeuvre: eccentric yet familiar characters, baffling children, unhappy marriages, the Baltimore setting, and the dichotomy between confinement and freedom, security and self-worth (Jill S). Her finely-drawn characters are as comfortingly familiar as putting on that old cozy sweater (Meara C). If I was limited to reading only three authors for the rest of my time on Earth, Tyler would be one of them. She is a masterful storyteller (Darrell W).

Readers noted parallels to other works by the author:
In Clock Dance, familiar themes emerge: the woman who must leave home to find herself (Ladder of Years), the emotional distancing of children (Dinner in the Homesick Restaurant), and marital discord (The Amateur Marriage). Tyler also returns to the theme that family is what you make it (Kathryn H).

Many readers related to the main character:
Subtle, yet heartwarming and inspiring, the author manages to create a protagonist that represents the internal voice that so many women have. The voice that tells us to act politely under all circumstances and never create a fuss. The voice that asks, "Why haven't I done more with my life?" The voice that tinges all new experiences, large and small, with anxiety. What makes the book worthwhile is seeing how Willa grows from a timid young woman to an empowered individual (Anita P). Because I'm close in age to both Tyler and the main character, Willa resonated with me; I understood the character's development because I lived through the same time period and also saw how women were taught to behave during those decades (Kathryn H).

Clock Dance's secondary characters were also popular:
I found the novel's characters to be interesting, eccentric and charming (Susan C). They're realistic – flawed, but in most cases likable (Kathryn H).

Some couldn't connect to the story, while others found it stale:
I didn't feel enough of a connection with Willa to recognize that the discussed events were significant. Willa felt more like a woman that I might have met at a shower or birthday party and quickly forgotten (Babe H). The novel felt derivative; we've seen this story before in previous novels like The Accidental Tourist, Saint Maybe and others. Clock Dance is a decent read, beautifully written and sharply observed, but I kept waiting for something more transgressive to happen to break up the well-worn formula (Cynthia S).

Most readers loved the book and would recommend it:
Clock Dance was another winner in a very long list of Anne Tyler novels that I have read. She is right up there at the top of the list of my favorite authors (Jean N). Though Tyler is very much within her comfort zone with this novel, I still quite enjoyed following Willa across the country and through her interactions with a fun, zany cast of characters (Meara C). I truly loved this delightful tale and all of the quirky Baltimore residents (Susan C). A wonderful selection for a book club (Lori H).

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Ron Charles, The Washington Post
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? As one of Willa's elderly neighbors tells her, 'Figuring out what to live for. That's the great problem at my age.

Connie Ogle, The Star Tribune
The question of whether Willa will return to Arizona provides no real mystery. What drives the novel are Tyler's wonderfully direct and evocative character sketches and dialogue that flows with grace and humor, deceptive in its simplicity. Like all her books, Clock Dance is unfussy but generous. And if it's somewhat less substantial than her rich and glorious family saga A Spool of Blue Thread, well, its heart is in the right place.

Kirkus Reviews
Tyler's characteristic warmth and affection for her characters are engaging as ever. ... Power dynamics are never simple in Tyler's portraits of marriage.

Publishers Weekly
A stellar addition to Tyler's prodigious catalogue ... The cast of sharply drawn characters dominates in ways both reflective and raucous across a series of emotional events.

Tyler's bedazzling yet fathoms-deep feel-good novel is wrought with nimble humor, intricate understanding of emotions and family, place and community—and bounteous pleasure in quirkiness, discovery, and renewal ... Brilliant, charming, and book-club-ready.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Nancy Emery, retired librarian Sturgeon Bay WI
the Clock Dance
Ann Tyler does it again...another engrossing read that is over all too soon. Basically it is the story of Willa starting out in 1967and progresses through her life in ten and twenty year increments. I found myself relating to her in all the Phases of her life. Her life takes unexpected turns that keep the story moving.

Rated 2 of 5 of 5 by Reneesarah
Tedious book limps to sorry conclusion.
This book is boring. It is difficult to care about the main character. While I cannot stand that her husband refers to her as "little one" he does have a reasonable expectation that they might enjoy their retirement years doing whatever things they want together. But no, she has to go and adopt a family that isn't hers, so she can become a pseudo-grandmother. Oh please.....

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Bettie T. (Johns Island, SC)
A Woman on Her Way
Keeping in mind that truth is often far stranger than fiction, one has to put aside the main premise of the story, take that leap of faith, and dig into the wonderfully human characters and details that make up Clock Dance. Our main character, Willa, might be perceived by those who don't know her well (including her family) as a weak person, but she is actually very generous and comes to know her strength through the novel. I found her an easy character with which to identify. I think book clubs will find several themes that can be discussed, including the ways in which women's ways are often different from men's.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Sue Z. (Cornelius, NC)
Clock Dance
Once again Ann Tyler has written a book that will delight her many fans. Willa, the main character, is a middleaged woman, who, although loved and cared for, has always been taken for granted by those in her family.That changes suddenly when she receives a strange phone call that will turn her world upside down. A gentle and encouraging book that is bound to be the choice of many, many book clubs this year

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Chris, Wisconsin
Vintage Anne Tyler
Like the other books by Anne Tyler that I've read, Clock Dance is a story about ordinary people living mostly very ordinary lives, but told in a way that makes them interesting enough for the reader to keep turning pages and then not wanting the book to end. I enjoyed Willa's story very much, and have spent quite a bit of time since finishing it, wondering what the next chapter of her life would hold.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Lori (Puyallup, WA)
Anne Tyler is a joy to read
I have enjoyed Anne Tyler's writing for many years now and was excited to read Clock Dance. It did not disappoint and exceeded my expectations. The story wound its way gently over the hills and valleys of the character's ordinary but unique situations. A wonderful selection for a book club. Thank you Book Browse for this exceptional book!

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Jo (DeRidder,LA)
I have read all of Tyler's books and really enjoyed most of them. This one left me wanting more. I felt that the short bits of Willa's life that we were shown were not enough to feel like I knew her. The last half of the book was more satisfying and the characters more fully developed. I would not recommend this for my book group to discuss. But Tyler's characters in the last half of the book were quirky and interesting as always.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Marie De
Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
As I read Clock Dance by Anne Tyler, I had the uncomfortable sense of having no idea where the story was going. The story relates events in “chunks” of Willa’s life, starting with her childhood. Her father is totally amiable and placid while her mother is “high strung” and leaves the family for long periods of time during which Willa plays mother to her younger sister. The story skips ahead to her first marriage and then to her second. In the final and longest segment, she is summoned to the aid of her son’s ex-girlfriend who has been shot in the leg. Willa cares for her and her daughter as she recuperates. Even in this segment, I was getting impatient for something definitive to happen. Willa seems to live slightly removed from herself. She is pleasant, kind, and seemingly unflappable. She skims along the surface of life pleasantly, just as the story seems to stay on the surface of the character. And that is the point, the genius of Anne Tyler. She doesn’t explain, she shows.
This is a book you will think about and want to discuss long after you close the covers.


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Baltimore's Storied Past

Baltimore's Washington Monument designed by Robert Mills, completed in 1929Clock Dance, like many of Anne Tyler's novels, takes place in Baltimore, Maryland. The largest city in the state, Baltimore is home to over 600,000 residents, or 2.8 million people including the entire metro area. Located just 40 miles northeast of Washington, D.C. on the Patapsco River close to where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, it is the second-largest seaport in the Mid-Atlantic region in terms of cargo transported (with Virginia's Port of Norfolk being the largest). The bay opens to the ocean via the 14-mile Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, and is a major automobile-shipping hub. It is one of the most naturally-protected harbors in the world; the Delmarva Peninsula shields it from most hurricanes, and the Appalachian Mountains to the south temper its climate, keeping the bay from freezing over in the winter.

The city was founded by British colonists in 1729, including George Calvert, titled Baron Baltimore (1579-1632), for whom it was named. After his death, Calvert's son Cecilius Calvert, Second Baron Baltimore (1605-1675) became Maryland's Proprietary Governor, though he managed its affairs from his home in North Yorkshire, England. Baltimore quickly became a shipping center for tobacco and grain, and the local waterways were used for milling grain into flour. By the outbreak of the American Revolution it had become a shipbuilding center; the U.S. Navy's first ship, the Constellation, was launched here in 1797.

During the War of 1812, a 35-year-old American lawyer named Francis Scott Key sailed across the Chesapeake Bay to the British ship HMS Minden to negotiate the exchange of prisoners. He was kept on board, however, as he'd overheard the enemy's plans to bombard nearby Fort McHenry, and was forced to watch during the night of 13-14 September (1814) as the British carried out their attack. The next morning, he found that the American flag still flew over the fort; the foe had been defeated. It inspired him to write a poem titled "Defense of Fort M'Henry," which was later set to music and became the lyrics to the country's national anthem.

Named "Monument City" by John Quincy Adams after his visit in 1827, Baltimore has long been known for its public statues and architecture. The first monument to George Washington, designed by Robert Mills, was erected here in 1829. Mills went on to design the Washington Monument in the nation's capital. It is believed that Baltimore has more statues and monuments per capita than any other city in the country.

Maryland remained a slave state throughout the Civil War, and although it fought on the Union side, Confederate sentiments were strong across the state. Baltimore, however, had long harbored escaped slaves; it was home to more free black citizens than any other city in Maryland, and was a major stop along the Underground Railroad.

A catastrophic fire razed the center of the city in 1904; more than 1,500 buildings burned in 30 hours. Amazingly, the city took only two years to recover, and by World War I it had become an industrial hub. The war saw additional construction of steelworks, oil refineries and other war-related industries, and this prosperity persisted through the end of World War II.

The post-war decades saw Baltimore become a victim of urban decay as a result of deindustrialization and economic blight. "Suburban flight" in the 1960s led to further decline. A massive urban renewal project began in 1979, however, which has rejuvenated the city's core and seen the return of commerce to the central business district. Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University (named for the entrepreneur, abolitionist, and philanthropist whose endowments paid for their founding) are Baltimore's top two employers, and tourism also makes up a large portion of its economy (the National Aquarium is Maryland's largest tourist attraction). It is also home to the Pimlico Race Course (home of the Preakness Stakes), and professional sports teams the Orioles (baseball) and the Ravens (football).

Nevertheless, Baltimore has a long way to go before it recovers its former glory. Crime is far above the national average; it was named the most dangerous big city by USA Today in 2018 due to its high murder rate. In 2015 it had 344 homicides, the second-highest per capita in all U.S. cities behind St. Louis, and had the second highest number of opioid-related deaths (after Dayton, Ohio). Nearly 24% of residents live below the poverty line, compared with the 13.5% national average, and the median household income is significantly below that of the rest of the country.

Baltimore's Washington Monument, courtesy of

by Kim Kovacs

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