Lately, I’ve been thinking about how books don’t always have to have bells and whistles to keep readers interested. I mean, if people enjoy reading action-packed novels, good for them! All I am saying is that every now and then, it’s good to sit down and read something that doesn’t rely on distractions to hold people’s attentions. This allows them to focus on the plot, the characters, and what they go through, and when done right, it can be quite impactful. Case in point: Clock Dance by Anne Tyler.
Clock Dance is about one woman’s transformative journey. Willa Drake is a woman who lets things happen around her. In 1967, she’s a schoolgirl dealing with her mother’s emotional rollercoasters. In 1977, she’s a college student considering a marriage proposal despite the future that she wants for herself. In 1997, she’s dealing with becoming a widow despite the fact that her husband and sons paved her life for her, and in 2017, she yearns to have relationships with her sons and to be a grandmother. One day, she gets a call from a stranger, and before she knows it, she flies to Baltimore to look after her son’s ex-girlfriend – a woman she has never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and their dog. The experience shows her that she still has a chance to dance through life as opposed to going at it slantwise.
After looking at discussion questions for this novel, I knew that it wasn’t going to have a lot of conflict. For some, conflict is what drives the book as well as their interest in it, but in the case of Clock Dance, the drive is Willa’s transformation. Readers who love it were drawn into seeing the protagonist become a more assertive person who has an actual say with what she does in her life. However, not all books can deal with little conflict. Imagine The Great Alone without the abusive father coming to Alaska. That automatically eliminates a lot of conflict, and it would change the tone and even the story entirely. The reason that Clock Dance is able to get away with this is that Tyler (from what I know) constantly writes about everyday people. These people don’t always deal with conflict, yet when they do, it’s not always extreme. In Clock Dance, the conflict is more subtle and internal (as opposed to external) with Willa being divided on doing things for herself versus for others who don’t appreciate her efforts.
What is also subtle is the writing. There were plenty of instances, in which readers would need to put the two together. For example, Willa’s sister Elaine calls, and she mentions how Peter – Willa’s current husband – is doing. However, she accidentally calls him Derek – Willa’s first one; she says, “…same difference really, right?” (p. 265).
As readers might see, Peter and Derek are similar people. Both want Willa to do things for them with little thought to how it would affect her. Elaine’s dialogue displays an indirect acknowledgement of that.
Now let’s talk about Willa. She starts off pretty passive, but being that way is not always a bad thing in books. Jessi Jezewska Stevens – author of The Exhibition of Persephone Q – wrote an article for LitHub promoting the idea of the passive protagonist. She uses the example of Candide in Voltaire’s book of that name. Candide is wholly optimistic and yearns to live in the “best of all possible worlds” despite being thrown into a series of violent misfortunes. However, once he is on the quest, he becomes less passive. Tyler is able to have Willa be passive in the beginning of Clock Dance, for nearly 100 pages is devoted to the character’s backstory. And the book is not even 300 pages long. Overtime, she realizes that she can have a life of her own and have a family – a cast of colorful neighbors -that does not take her for granted.
All in all, Clock Dane by Anne Tyler is a very good example of how to write a book with little conflict. Readers will know why Willa is the way that she is, and she goes through a subtle transformative journey that I’m sure people can relate to. I would recommend this to Anne Tyler fans as well as to readers who want a lighter read. However, that kind of read doesn’t always mean sacrificing depth and impact.
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