Ladder of Years is another fine character-led drama by Anne Tyler, one of my favourite authors. It is the story of Delia Grinstead who, in a moment of dissatisfaction with her life and relationships, goes for a walk on the beach and keeps on walking. Finding a niche in a small town, with hardly any money and possessions, Delia starts again. And when her family catch up with her and ask her why she left, she cannot find a way to explain.
It is twenty-eight years since Ladder of Years was first published. It was chosen by Time magazine as one of the ten best books of 1995. Tyler had already been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1986 with The Accidental Tourist and won it in 1989 for Breathing Lessons. All her novels stand the test of time and can be read as if the action takes place today, so accurately is her finger on the portrayal of human emotion.
Adrift from her husband and three almost-adult children in Baltimore and not understanding why, Delia finally tips over the edge while on holiday. She finds herself in Bay Borough, the sort of small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. She finds a job and a room to rent, buys a couple of secondhand work dresses and a nifty gadget to heat water in a cup so she can make an early morning cup of tea. Delia knows she should let her family know she is safe but is disinclined to do so, feeling she has been taken for granted. Inevitably, one of her sisters arrives on the doorstep. What follows is the story of a woman free for the first time, having married as a teenager and worked all that time as her doctor husband’s receptionist. Free from the expectations of others, she makes a circle of friends on her own terms.
This is a novel about middle-aged stasis and escape, about admitting the truth of one’s own life, choices and possibilities, and that there are no easy answers. Tyler’s characters are always so well-drawn and believable and her observations so wise and true, sometimes uncomfortably so. Here’s an example; ‘Didn’t it often happen, she thought, that aged parents die exactly at the moment when other people (your husband, your adolescent children) have stopped being thrilled to see you coming? But a parent is always thrilled, always dwells so lovingly on your face as you are speaking. One of life’s many ironies.’ Of course, Delia encounters other parent/child combinations in Bay Borough which challenge this theory.
Tyler’s novels deceive; seemingly about small domesticities and passage-of-life-events, they are really about the big, difficult questions we all face as we pass through different phases of life.
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Read my reviews of these other books by Anne Tyler:-
A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD
REDHEAD BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD
And read the first paragraphs of:-
DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT
BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWN UPS
If you like this, try:-
‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout
‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift
‘The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve
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#Bookreview LADDER OF YEARS by Anne Tyler https://wp.me/p5gEM4-49S via @SandraDanby