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.

The Beginner’s Goodbye

Not many get to choose how they will die, but considering the possibilities, a tree falling on the house on an otherwise quiet afternoon, probably has never made anyone’s list. In Anne Tyler’s latest novel – The Beginner’s Goodbye – Dorothy dies at her computer when the huge oak leans into the sunroom, crushing her. Aaron, her husband, is in bed at the other side of the house, recovering from a cold. In the first few pages, Dorothy appears to have returned from the dead.

With glimpses of Tyler’s hometown of Baltimore, the story settles on how Aaron, who walks with a limp from a childhood disease, is coping. Tyler immediately backtracks from Aaron’s first view of his wife’s ghost to Dorothy’s last day, the practical incidents that made up their unromantic married life, and the subsequent changes in Aaron’s life since her death. The narrative is slow and draining at times, as Aaron returns to his childhood home to heal. As others awkwardly try to help him – not knowing what to say and delivering casseroles that he throws away – Tyler hits a few familiar notes for anyone who has either lost someone from death, or tried to understand the person left behind.

The title refers to Aaron’s work as editor in the family business – a vanity press for authors who pay to have their names printed on small guidebooks – Beginner’s books (one step up from the books for Dummies). The staff meetings and discussions over the boring drafts are surprisingly funny.

Like many of Tyler’s heroes, Aaron is lovable for his flaws, and a man just waiting to be saved. Tyler does not disappoint her faithful readers, but I won’t spoil the story by telling you how it all resolves, other than to remind you that Tyler is an optimist. The not so subtle message of living life while you have it, is delivered.

Having read most of Anne Tyler’s books, and having an affinity for the Baltimore area, I had hungrily anticipated this Pulitzer prize winner’s 19th book. At first, the thought of yet another book about a distraught widower (I’d finished Wolitzer’s An Available Man recently enough to have not forgotten it) seemed unbearable. However, although some of the obstacles to coping are, as expected, similar in both stories, the path to survival is much different in each book.

Anne Tyler’s characters move in a dimension of familiarity – they will remind you of people you know, or maybe wish you didn’t. After finishing the book, I was sure I was going to run into Aaron somewhere, but I suppose he is still back in Baltimore.