This is only the second Anne Tyler novel I have ever read. 2015’s “A Spool Of Blue Thread” was my introduction to her work and I described it as “a highly readable, high quality work with bags of appeal.” I reviewed it under my 100 Essential Books thread and it appeared in my end of year Top 10 at number 3. Although I haven’t read much by her I do know that she is a writer many readers hold dear for her beautifully written tales of American life. This book confirms this.
“Ladder Of Years” was her 13th novel and appeared in 1995. There’s a 1982 copyright at the front of the book which suggests it may have been around in some format for a considerable time before that publication. Like many of Tyler’s novels it features a family living in the Baltimore area. The most striking thing about it is how calm and quiet it is as a novel which places it at loggerheads with the dramatic decisions characters make but on this occasion this makes it seem all the more effective.
Forty year old Delia Grinstead is feeling taken for granted, by her husband, a GP who practises from their home, the same house her father ran his surgery from; by her adolescent children and by other family members. An infatuation with a younger man reaches a dead end and one day on an extended-family annual beach holiday Delia just walks away along the sands and into a new life.
We’re never totally sure why she does this other than she fancies a change. There’s no fireworks and little emotional trauma on show as Delia just knuckles down and begins again somewhere new. It’s beautifully written, the reader knows how selfish Delia’s act is yet still wills her to succeed.
The title refers to a metaphor used by one of the older characters who employs a playground slide ladder to convey how we climb up through life, with others following close behind leading to the moment when you have to go over the top and commence the slide downwards – there’s no turning back.
The introduction of a couple of cats into the narrative caused me momentary stress (in case something bad happened to them) but Vernon and George are great cat characters who enrich the lives of those they meet. As with “A Spool Of Blue Thread” I couldn’t imagine a book which examines the details of American middle-class family life would have much resonance for me, but I was wrong and I’m not yet sure how Tyler has managed with both offerings to really reel me in. It could be seen as a simple tale of a female mid-life crisis but it is much richer than that implies. There’s no gimmicks and no real set pieces here. When there is a dramatic situation – a confrontation at a family event, Delia’s walking out and last- minute wedding jitters, for example, they are pretty much underplayed for their dramatic potential and it really works. It is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.
I actually don’t think that us Brits can fully engage in quite the same way with feeling that we know these characters, their locations and lives in late twentieth century Baltimore anywhere near as much as her American market would and this also adds to the achievement in winning me over. I did have some reservations about the ending but then life doesn’t always turn out as we expect, so why should it in fiction?
Structurally, “The Ladder Of Years” is a simpler novel than “A Spool Of Blue Thread” and I think it may just be behind it in the impression it has made on me but without doubt Anne Tyler scores 2 from 2 for me with five star essential reads.
I read the 1996 Vintage paperback edition of “Ladder Of Years”. It was first published in the UK in 1995 by Chatto & Windus.