So, Barnes & Noble decided to do a national book club this year. Their first selection was The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer back in May. Jenn told me about it and let me know when B&N announced their next selection. They're spreading these out and the Clock Dance book club took place last night (August 8th). I RSVP'd pretty early on and was skeptical about the book. I hadn't really heard of Tyler before and this type of book is usually only alright or very much a miss for me. But anyway, I got the book and read it in two sittings and then decided I'd go to the book club in hopes that it would become a regular thing.
Clock Dance follows Willa Drake from her childhood in 1967 through her 60s in 2017. The novel is told in two parts. Part I takes place in three decades: 1967, 1977, and 1997. Part II is all set in 2017.
At eleven, Willa's world is turned upside down when, after returning home from school one afternoon, she and her younger sister find that their mother is gone. For about 48 hours Willa takes responsibility for Elain (her younger sister) and tries to make the best of a bad scenario. She does the best an 11-year-old can and ends up very frustrated with her mom and dad. Throughout this section, you get glimpses of their sometimes volatile home life due to the eccentricities of their mother. Willa decides to be a calm presence in her family, sort of modeling after her father.
This glimpse into her childhood sets the tone for the next 5 decades of Willa's life. She becomes a silent passenger in her own life. At 41, Willa's entire life changes and she has the opportunity to do something entirely different for herself. We leave her making the first few attempts at this.
Twenty years later, Willa receives a phone call from a stranger. The stranger is the neighbor of Willa's oldest son's ex-girlfriend. The ex-girlfriend has been shot in the leg in a bizarre accident and her elementary-age daughter doesn't have anyone to take look after her while she recovers.
Next thing you know, Willa and her husband are on a plane to Baltimore to help out this woman (Denise) and her daughter (Cheryl) they don't really know or have a real connection to and Willa can't quite explain why.
Now, as you noticed this book's cover has a saguaro cactus on it. And you might be wondering, "What does any of this have to do with a cactus?" Well, the night before Willa flies to Baltimore she is standing in her backyard in Arizona contemplating a saguaro; its solitary majesty and resilience. Willa admires this cactus. She reaches out to touch it and finds it is different than expected.
This novel is about a woman whose life is marked over and over by missed chances, a willing passivity, a nonchalance about missing out on her own life. She seems incredibly lonely, unknown by the other characters with whom she interacts. Even her sister, husband, and sons do not really know her. She's like a set piece, scenery, an expected but unused prop, the furniture. And there isn't much about Willa to show a deeper inner life.
The time Willa spends with Denise and Cheryl is the most active of the novel. You meet a parade of colorful characters more like a family than neighbors. While Willa is visiting Denise in the hospital she notices a cactus in the gift shop in a small pot and gets mad about this stately plant being reduced to a cute decoration. Willa finds herself embedded in the small community and finding a purpose in helping Denise and Cheryl. She begins to see her reality a little differently, I think. At the close of the novel, Willa is yet again confronted with a choice about what to do with her life. And the answer is a bit of a surprise.
As I mentioned previously, I probably wouldn't have just picked this book up off the shelf for myself. Usually, these type of novels tend to focus on very sad things and all the people are fairly hateful. I was happy to find that wasn't the case here. There is a balance of characters on the spectrum of selfish/mean to kind/generous. The story is a bit weird and definitely centered around a thought experiment, but it reads quickly and easily and is paced in an interesting way.
Willa is like many women I know, her experience is something I've observed. Parts of her approach to life seemed like things I've done. And my heart broke for the universality of this woman. Alone in her life, unappreciated by her loved ones, missing out on chance after chance to really do something with her life. One moment that really stuck out to me was when Willa admires the cactus. She is wistful, almost aspiring to be like this cactus: self-sufficient, resilient in a wasteland, able to survive on so little. The cactus has some good qualities, too, they grow over 40 feet tall, they live a long time, they are steadfast. But even in this aspiration, Willa would be alone, not bothering anyone, not causing any disruptions. Just standing stoically on the horizon.
At the book club, we discussed the motif of older women discovering their power and making a new life of their own just around the time society has completely written them off. I shared with the women in the group that this is inspiring to me. They (the two other participants were older than me) mentioned that they look at my generation and some younger than me and think we're so bold and independent and forget that there is some insecurity still there. And I shared with them the experience of turning 30 the same year my mother turned 60 and my grandmother turned 80. We all hit these HUGE milestones and we each had concerns, fears, and maybe even a little excitement, about it.
I loved discussing this book with a group of women. We could all pull something about Willa out that resonated with us. And motivated us not to be like her. Or to be (the final version of Willa we see, anyway). I shared on Facebook that this feeling rose up in me, to celebrate women in their power. I truly believe that women are wonderful, amazing creatures. We bring so much to our surroundings. Society often tells us we are only valuable within a narrow parameter of what is defined as an "attractive woman". Anything outside of this narrow definition is derided, ignored, disrespected. I truly think this is the case because people are afraid of a fully realized, truly powerful woman.
In Nanette, the Netflix comedy special setting fire to comedy norms and causing women the world over to cheer Hannah Gadsby says:
The moment I heard that sentence, I burst into tears. Just as I have seen the Willas of this world, the women sliding into the background, afraid to make noise, I have also seen these rebuilt women. But it is rare that you find validation and celebration of a powerful woman. The country showed us how afraid they are of a powerful woman in the 2016 election.
I long for the day that the celebration of powerful, strong, brilliant, amazing women is not seen as a threat. I hope to raise children in that kind of world.
I love to talk about books and I love to celebrate and encourage women. The fact that these two things merged together last night, for me, was a euphoric experience. I came home amped up for hours and unable to fall asleep. I walked through today empowered in my own voice. I wanted to encourage the women around me to rise into their power and celebrate the women who handle the tough things life throws their way.
So this is me, celebrating you.
Have you read Clock Dance? What is something currently (or recently) inspiring you?
P.S. I won a signed copy of the book at book club which was quite funny to me.