Anne Tyler’s novels are always satisfying. She’s a great storyteller, a master of dialogue and she has a reputation for crafting vivid, believable characters. Ladder of Years (Random House) ticks all these boxes, and yet her flawed protagonist (that’s what makes her believable) is a little too flawed to be endearing.
Delia Grinstead, 40, wife of Dr Sam Grinstead and mother of three children, feels insignificant in her family. The doctor is a good enough fellow, but he has an overbearing confidence that’s hard for her to swallow, particularly when it occurs to her (very late in the day) that he courted her mainly for the house and ready-made medical practice that he’d be inheriting from her father.
Mind you, she’s not desperately unhappy. She’s just unsettled and out of step with her almost-adult children, who are growing into strangers. She feels unappreciated, superfluous. So one day, on an impulse, she leaves them. They are enjoying their annual seaside holiday and while they are all on the beach she just walks away in her flounced swimsuit, with her husband’s robe and $500 in her tote bag.
We won’t ask why she would take the entire holiday kitty down to the beach, but there you are, she does, and jolly convenient that proves to be, as it gives her the wherewithal to start a new life.
Now I am the last person in the world to make moral judgements about women who leave their families, but Delia’s behaviour is callous to the point of being unhinged. I can accept her walking off; I can accept her needing some time alone, even staying away for a few days, but I find it unbelievable (given her uncertain personality) that she would do it without warning, without a precipitating event, without letting someone know that she is alive and safe, and without attempting to contact anyone in her family as the months roll into a year.
She simply goes off the lot of them. Blanks them out. All right, her husband may be a bit pompous and her children lacklustre, but wouldn’t she spare them a thought? Wouldn’t she question her knee-jerk reaction and want to explain her decision to start over?
I gave her the benefit of the doubt for a while, accepting that crises can make people act in strange ways, but when she sets herself up with a replacement family (who also get ditched) you think, now really, this woman needs a couple of sharp snaps under her nose.
What is believable is that her daughter’s wedding draws her home, and once there, she doesn’t have the energy to leave again, even though she has taken on the responsibility of caring for a young boy in her other life. True to form, she simply lets that world and all its characters fade once her old life is back in focus.
Tyler hopes that we’ll be fond of Delia, but I find her not so much lacking in substance (which would imply poor characterisation) as worryingly inadequate, which is quite a different thing, seeing that her inadequacies have been deliberately scripted. Her year away teaches her independence and confidence, but she has yet to develop depth and insight. So it’s appropriate that she ends up back with her imperfect family, where you get the feeling that the relationship work is only about to begin – or not, in which case they, like so many other families, will continue in unspoken resentment until the end of their days.
Ladder of Years is an entertaining read, with flowing prose, compelling characters, humour and poignancy. It’s provoking too, both in thought and otherwise, needling the reader into examining her own beliefs about relationship, motherhood and morality.