The Clock Winder – Revisiting Anne Tyler

Families? Outsiders may wonder how they manage, may jealously wish to be part of one, or happily keep their distance – but no one really knows what happens inside, unless you are a member.  Just like marriages, observation can yield disparate information; only those involved really know what’s going on.  In one of her early novels – The Clock Winder – Anne Tyler uses an ensemble to demonstrate the fluidity of family.

Having read most of Tyler’s books, and just finished her latest – The Beginner’s Goodbye – I needed more of her Baltimore fix.  The Clock Winder was Tyler’s fourth book, published in 1972.  Not the Pulitzer Winner (Breathing Lessons) or the National Book Award Winner (The Accidental Tourist), or the book she considers her best work (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) – The Clock Winder still has Anne Tyler’s quiet assessment of life, with zingers cleverly interspersed throughout the narrative and her signature optimistic ending.

Elizabeth Gillespie, a young Southern daughter of a Baptist minister, is wondering what to do with her life, when she meets the Emerson family – a disparate clan full of quirks.  Pamela Emerson, a widow of three months, who has lost patience with the world as well as her handyman (who pees on the roses), hires Elizabeth to replace him.  So starts the saga of Elizabeth with Pamela Emerson and her seven children: Matthew, twins Alex and Timothy, Margaret, Melissa, Mary –  grown and somewhat fled the nest – and Peter, the youngest in college.

The story rumbles along comfortably, as Elizabeth finds her niche in fixing door jambs, cleaning gutters, stocking wood for the fireplace.  She draws the line at beheading the live turkey for Thanksgiving, and as each new member of the family comes home and is introduced, a feeling of good will and even romance pervades – ah, one of those novels.  Except Tyler has no intention of being Maeve Binchy; suddenly, another death – traumatic and catastrophic to the family.

Tyler cleverly switches gears to Elizabeth’s own family, and then back again to the Emersons with yet another life-changing incident.  You’ll keep reading just to find out what happens.  Eventually, for those who like neat endings, Tyler does tie up all those loose ends and even takes the reader into the future.

But the plot, as satisfying as it is, only provides the vehicle for Tyler’s astute observations.  Pamela’s fears of growing old and becoming a burden to her family, her well-meaning forays into trying to fix the lives of her children – after all, she only wants the best for them – offer a window into a strong woman’s determination to survive alone.  Elizabeth becomes the catalyst for the family’s growth, pulling them apart and bringing them back together in waves, as she faces herself and the life she wants.  The brothers and sisters all have roles that reflect attributes we may have and sometimes wish we didn’t.

I am never disappointed when I read Anne Tyler.  I may delve back into another of her early books, or maybe just wait.  I usually forget what I’ve read, and it would be a pleasure to get reacquainted with her characters in a little while.