Thursday, March 11, 2010
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
While shopping in the local store, forty-year-old Delia Grinstead is asked by a young man, Adrian Bly-Brice, to pose as his girlfriend in order to make his ex, who is also shopping in the same store with her new boyfriend, jealous. She does so, and enjoys the frisson of excitement that this innocent deception offers. She subsequently meets the young man again and they form a friendship.
At this point, I feared I was about to read all over again the last Anne Tyler I read, Earthly Possessions. Unhappy woman? Check. Meets young man? Check. Promise of escape? Check. But this time, happily, there is a difference. She does not go off with Adrian as you are led to expect. Instead, while on holiday with her family she walks away and leaves them on the beach, and keeps walking. She doesn’t mean to leave them, but she does, and she finds herself living a new existence, alone, in a small town in Minnesota. That is the basic plot of Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler’s thirteenth novel. It is fairly typical Tyler territory, of course, but as ever it is beautifully written.
What I find fascinating about this novel is the way it confronts our perceptions of women. Women are the homemakers. Women are defined by their families. By coincidence, there was an article in the newspapers over the weekend about the son of Alison Hargreaves, who is about to follow his mother’s footsteps and head off to climb K2. There was an enormous fuss back in 1995 when Hargreaves died in her attempt to climb the mountain. How dare she leave two young children without a mother? the tabloids cried. No such fuss would have been raised if it had been the father who had died, but because it was the mother it was considered to be unacceptable. It is precisely this sort of preconception that Tyler addresses in Ladder of Years.
In society’s eyes, Delia does a terrible thing: she leaves her family, she abandons her children. She decides that she must live her own life and sets out to do just that. In this, of course, she is a modern day Edna Pontellier. I loved Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and I loved Edna Pontellier for her free-spiritedness. She was the antithesis of that other great literary love of mine, Tess Durbeyfield, because she was a woman who took control of her own life. I still find the ending of The Awakening hard to bear and, although it is nothing so grim, I find the ending of Ladder of Years equally disappointing. But that’s me, and that’s my personal reaction to the plot, rather than a considered literary view.
Having said that, in literary terms I think the ending of Ladder of Years is easily the weakest part of the book. It seems like Tyler felt she had come to the end and just looked for a way to finish it. An aged character, Nat, makes a two hour drive to Delia’s home for no logical reason other than to act as a plot device and everything resolves neatly from there. It feels terribly weak, given what has come before. Nonetheless, Ladder of Years is an entertaining read, a decent piece of literature and a provocative piece of social comment. In the end, Delia is no Edna Pontellier. Someone should do the decent thing and create an Edna for the twenty-first century.