8 January 2013

Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)

The Clock Winder is Anne Tyler's fourth novel, and the year it was published the New York Times had very little to say about it, just that it lacked substance. In a much later review in the Washington Post in 2003 – 'The Clock Winder: A Look Back to What Makes Anne Tyler Tick' – Jonathan Yardley is much more appreciative of it. And interestingly, he mentions a book I wasn't aware of – The Writer on Her Work (New York: Norton, c. 1980), edited by Janet Sternberg and containing an essay by Tyler titled 'Still Just Writing', in which she says that she's hurt when people say she chooses only to write about 'bizarre or eccentric people'. She goes on say that this is not a choice because 'even the most ordinary person [...] will turn out to have something unusual at his center.' Unusual? Well, yes, I can see that, but like most of her books The Clock Winder is (and I'm not ashamed of repeating myself ad nauseam) a world away from the milk and cookie world many believe she inhabits.

However, by coincidence, milk and cookies are literally what Mrs Emerson offers the young Elizabeth Abbott at the beginning of the book, after she does the widow a favor. But there isn't a great deal of cosiness in the rest of the novel, which depicts a very dysfunctional family with people behaving very oddly.

Mrs Emerson has had seven children, all of whom are odd, but some of whom are odder than others, such as Timothy, who kills himself earlier on in the presence of Elizabeth, and whose mentally disturbed twin brother sends her four letters in which he threatens to kill her. Most people would have been really spooked by this and called the cops, but Elizabeth doesn't tell anyone, doesn't take it seriously, and a few years later Andrew shoots her, although she's lucky to escape with a graze.

From this, it's clear that Elizabeth too is odd, and no less so for joining Dommie up the aisle only to say 'I don't'. And she doesn't just say this because she had second thoughts about that marriage proposal by Matthew, another of Mrs Emerson's sons who happens to be so persistent in chasing Elizabeth that he too seems a little spooky.

In short, and as Yardley notes, all of the characters in this novel have something odd about them, although we don't learn anything about Mrs Emerson's son Peter until the end of the book, which is in 1970, ten years after it began. For the first time in three years, Peter goes back to Baltimore to see his mother, accompanied by his wife P. J., although no one even knows he's married. Elizabeth (who's now called Gillespie and finally married to Matthew) shows P. J. their room, and they're just about set to have a meal when P. J. (alone with Peter) throws a funny and slips away quietly. Shortly afterwards, Peter slips out quietly too, finds P. J. and away they drive, back to New Jersey.

This could only be Anne Tyler. She never fails.

My other Tyler reviews are below:

Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)

No comments: