Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Start Your Free Trial

Download Ladder of Years Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Ladder of Years

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

LADDER OF YEARS tells the story of Cordelia (Delia) Grinstead, who walks away from her Baltimore family vacationing at the beach in Delaware. She hops a ride to the nearby town of Bay Borough, named not for a body of water but George Pendle Bay, who deserted the Union Army because of a dream. This account of the town’s founding, a nice example of Tyler’s whimsy, parallels Delia’s own history. Before deserting her family, Delia tries to compensate for her unhappy marriage by flirting with an affair cut to the pattern of the romance novels she reads. Like Bay, she wakes from her delusion, but does not escape it.

Unfortunately, neither does the book. It remains far too much Delia’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. In Baltimore she has a family that takes her for granted. In Bay Borough, on the other hand, where she becomes spare, indispensable Miss Grinstead, everyone appreciates her, especially the school principal and his son, who quickly make her one of the family. Her biggest fan is the boy’s grandfather, Nat, a lively old man with a young, pregnant wife. He not only generates the book’s title and much homespun wisdom, but unwavering support for Delia. He appears to speak for Tyler; there is almost no recognition of Delia’s responsibility for accepting her years of unhappiness.

Tyler draws distinct and eccentric characters, but they never interact believably. When Delia returns after a year away, for example, her teenage son shrugs off a hug and shows no interest in her till he wants lunch. This strains belief even for the most sullen adolescent. Tyler enjoys a reputation for her family portraits, but the callous Grinsteads serve only to justify and disguise Delia’s passive aggressive nature.

Just as the characters never engage each other, they never engage the consequences of their actions. It is one thing to show how characters are obligated to the families they create, but quite another to suggest that family is a balm that can close up the wounds Delia sustains and inflicts as neatly as it does here. Delia’s husband rightly accuses her of dumping people when it suits her, but he is so unappealing his words hardly register. Tyler does not want to question, much less condemn, Delia for deserting either family. Instead, she plops Delia back where she began, not chastened, not wiser, not even in better control of her life, but inexplicably smug nonetheless.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. May 18, 1995, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 7, 1995, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 7, 1995, p. 12.

The New Yorker. LXXI, May 8, 1995, p. 89.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 5, 1995, p. 22.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, April 16, 1995, p. 1.

The Yale Review. LXXXIII, October, 1995, p. 135.

Ladder of Years

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2,331 words.)