For much of Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler escapes Baltimore, her usual locale, but she never strays far from familiar territory. As always, families both strengthen and suffocate, children writhe with neediness and resentment, possessions and routine weigh people down but give continuity, and love flourishes amid irreconcilable differences. The author’s fans will relish the novel’s prose, lucid and restrained but delightfully well observed. Given Tyler’s mastery of dialogue and detail, distinctive characters abound, sprung on the reader with rapid-fire inventiveness, while the narrative unfolds with delicate, even whimsical precision.
Ladder of Years begins with Cordelia Grinstead, childlike despite her age, lost in thought at a grocery store. Passive, introverted, and longing for romance, “Delia” accedes to a stranger’s request to pose as his girlfriend. Taken with this young man, Adrian Bly-Brice, who resembles her first boyfriend, she will soon succumb to a destabilizing infatuation.
Adrian edits a quarterly about time travel called Hurry Up, Please—a telling detail in a novel that examines human resistance to time. The young hurry to inhabit an idealized future, miring themselves in fantasy, while the old long to travel back in time. This is what Delia will do, climbing down life’s ladder to late adolescence, her last time of unadulterated happiness—and trust in men. She will acquire patience and self-assurance before she reascends.
In the present she is “a sad, tired, anxious, forty-year old woman.” Her husband, Sam, fifteen years her senior, married her right out of high school, with her father’s medical practice as dowry. In the years since, like a fairy-tale prince, he chose her from among Dr. Felson’s three daughters, he has lost all romantic sheen. He takes her thoroughly for granted, dismissing even her concern for his health. Worse, their three once-adorable children have all become selfish, sullen strangers.
Returning home from her initial encounter with Adrian, she finds fifteen-year-old Carroll, her “baby, her sweet, winsome Carroll . . . replaced by this rude adolescent, flinching from his mother’s hugs.” The particular bone of contention between them is her refusal to let him move into her father’s vacant room. She does not want to disturb its “heartbreaking neatness” with the messiness of life, but instead of explaining her own feelings (her father died only a few months earlier), she rejects her son’s: “‘Oh, listen to us!’ Delia said gaily. ‘Spoiling such a pretty day with disagreements!’”
When people mistreat Delia (which her family does with dismaying consistency), she withdraws, whether into romance novels such as Captive of Clarion Castle or into flirtation with Adrian or, finally, an alternate universe. She prefers to hold on to grievances rather than assert herself. Even her concern about Sam’s heart condition serves mainly to avoid sex (or postpone it—all the book’s romantic half-flings are foreplay for her ultimate return to Sam’s arms).
Delia, who has no friends her own age, cannot please either her insufferable children or older people, like Sam’s no-frills, no-nonsense mother Eleanor, who makes her feel inadequate. She needs to grow up, which means asserting herself; this, in turn, means letting go of her dead father, or causing him to let go of her, as does the Cordelia in King Lear (c. 1605).
Adrian asks, “Are you your father’s Cordelia?” She is, and, like Lear’s Cordelia, she is her father’s youngest, most beloved, most innocent, and most wronged daughter, enduring exile to prove her love. Yet Dr. Felson, a feeble presence throughout, does not seem to exert any hold that needs breaking. Though he must have been a daily part of everyone’s life, hardly anyone mentions his absence, much less mourns him. At one point, Delia realizes that she has missed her own grief, but it plays no part in the book, which ends with King Lear turned on its head: the father-figure lying in Delia’s arms and all well with the world.
As Dr. Felson’s replacement, Sam disappoints Delia, not only refusing to acknowledge his dependence on her but also remodeling the Felson homestead without consulting her. When she loses her romantic illusions about their past and Adrian lets her down, Delia abandons her family during their annual Delaware beach vacation.
Though Tyler uses a light touch, allowing for many moments of humor built on...