“Ladder of Years”
By Anne Tyler (Alfred A. Knopf, 326 pages, $24)
Anne Tyler’s comically touching new novel, “Ladder of Years,” begins with a one-page newspaper story headlined “Baltimore Woman Disappears During Family Vacation.” The article begins, “Delaware State Police announced early today that Cordelia F. Grinstead, 40, wife of a Roland Park physician, has been reported missing while on holiday with her family in Bethany Beach.”
It goes on to say that Mrs. Grinstead was last seen walking south along the beach by her husband, Dr. Samuel Grinstead, 55, and her three children, Susan, 21, Ramsey, 19, and Carroll, 15. It adds, “Her failure to return was not remarked until late afternoon.”
Now, this device certainly provokes the reader’s curiosity. Where has Mrs. Grinstead gone? Why did her family take so long to notice her disappearance? But it quickly comes to seem superfluous when, in the pages immediately following, we find Delia, as she is called, contemplating the vegetables in a grocery store one Saturday morning a few months before her disappearance.
Suddenly she is asked by an attractive young man to pretend she is with him, so that he can face his wife, who is in an adjoining aisle with another man. When Delia complies, the young man says to her in a stage whisper, “You promised me you’d make your marvelous blancmange tonight.”
As she leaves the store, Delia reflects that this experience is the most exciting thing that has happened to her in years.
Yet when she gets back to her north-central Baltimore home, her family won’t even listen to her account of the adventure, let alone be impressed by her being chosen for the role of a romantic rival. She is further reminded how confusingly routine her life has become when she returns the calls on her answering machine only to discover that the messages are 10 days old.
As the day’s tiny humiliations pile up, Delia feels “like a tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges.” No wonder that when the family goes off on its annual beach vacation, and Sam starts a quarrel with her and then loftily removes himself, “giving the impression that he, at least, could behave like an adult,” Delia finds herself walking away.
Still, one can understand Tyler’s instinct to hook the reader with the introductory news article, for her story gets even more arresting when Delia hitches a ride to a nearby town. By disappearing into a new life, she is acting out a fantasy that probably most middle-aged people have entertained. And Tyler details Delia’s adventure with great skill.
Finding herself in no more than a bathing suit and her husband’s robe but in possession of the family’s vacation cash, Delia buys new underwear and a single dress, and rents a sparsely furnished room in a boarding house. She takes a job as secretary to the town’s only lawyer.
She falls into a routine of working, eating, sleeping and reading serious novels instead of the romances she is used to: “She took to sitting on her bed in the evenings and staring into space. It was too much to say that she was thinking… . Most often she was, oh, just watching the air, as she used to do when she was small.”
In a world where people attract and repel each other like those magnetized novelty dogs, she experiences blissful aloneness, getting to know the person beyond the “false child” she feels she has always been.
Naturally, her isolation doesn’t last. She is given a kitten, which she names George. She attracts new friends. Her family finds her and sends out ambiguous requests for her to return.
The ultimate joke is that she tires of her secretarial work and accepts a job looking after a child whose mother has left him to become a TV weathercaster. The child’s father begins to fall in love with her. She is invited back to Baltimore to attend her own daughter’s wedding. Suspense builds over which family she will end up with, her employer’s or her own.
As so often in her earlier fiction - “Celestial Navigation,” “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” “The Accidental Tourist” and her nine other novels - Tyler creates distinct characters caught in poignantly funny situations. In one subplot, a man in an old-age home marries a younger woman he has made pregnant. When Delia has to leave George with a friend, the kitten develops bulimia.
As always, Tyler writes with a clarity that makes the commonplace seem fresh and the pathetic touching. When a homesick Delia hears from her sister Eliza that her other cat, in Baltimore, is growing old, she begins to weep: “She had thought of him as still in his prime, and only now did she recall how he had started pausing lately as if to assemble himself before attempting the smallest leap. How she had swatted him off the counter once this spring and he had fallen clumsily, scrabbling with his claws, landing in an embarrassed heap and then hastily licking one haunch as if he had intended to take that pose all along.”
When Delia walks away from her family, she steps out of time for an interval. But given the solidity of life that Tyler’s gentle art creates, she doesn’t escape for very long.
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