Quietly getting on with being human

Ladder of Years
by Anne Tyler

Until a few months ago I hadn’t really heard of Anne Tyler. While we were visiting Tim’s parents his mum recommended this book to me and since then I keep seeing her everywhere. This week she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work. This is an intriguing book, a study of human character, and I suspect that the way a reader reacts to it is very telling. In some ways it’s a very sad story, and it definitely got me thinking.

“Baltimore woman disappears during family vacation” begins the book, or more accurately the newspaper article that precedes chapter one. The description of the missing woman, 40-year-old Cordelia Grinstead, is so vague, so comical that I thought this was some kind of ironic take on the actual news story, a character’s bitter retelling – “Her eyes are blue or gray or perhaps green”, she “avoided swimming wherever possible and…may have been a cat in her most recent incarnation”. It’s a slightly bizarre introduction to a not-at-all comic novel about the Grinstead family, with all its quirks and pecularities.

I had assumed, from that beginning and the brief description I’d been given by Tim’s mum, that that would be where the story began – with the woman walking away from her family – and that the bulk of the novel would alternate between them looking for her and whatever she was doing, in a slightly detached, psychological study type of way.

Instead, the book begins weeks before the family holiday, with Cordelia, or Delia as she’s known to everyone, getting into a bizarre situation while at the supermarket – a younger man spots his estranged wife with another man and begs Delia, a complete stranger, to pose as his lover. It’s a brilliant opening – the comedy of the dichotomy between what Delia wants to buy for her family and what the young man throws into the basket, what he hisses at her not to buy because it will reveal that she has children or simply isn’t glamorous enough – and gives lots of room for Delia’s thoughts to reflect on her life, on how exciting this situation is compared with the humdrum of her usual existence, on what type of person she must be to go along with this, to drive away without half of the things she needs just to please a complete stranger.

Delia isn’t unhappy, but the more she reflects on that scene at the supermarket and other circumstances that come up in the run-up to the annual family holiday (Delia, her husband Sam, their three mostly grown-up children, both Delia’s sisters and her two nieces) she becomes, not exactly dissatisfied, but aware of herself and how other people see her and how little she appears to matter in anyone else’s life.

The book follows Delia all along, revealing every thought, every indecision, every awareness, every doubt. It is fascinating to watch as she walks away from her family aimlessly, catches a lift with no particular destination in mind, and creates a whole new life for herself. She dresses differently, interacts differently with people, reads a different type of book and, importantly, is delighted whenever anyone comments on her independence. From then on the question is: will she stay here? Will she take this new Delia back home to her family? Will she move on again when this new life becomes humdrum?

I wasn’t altogether satisfied by the ending, but then I don’t think I ever quite empathised with Delia. I understand the need for a change, to search herself for a while, but it seems such a cold, cruel way of going about it. And she does spend a lot of the book seeming a little empty, distracted, not quite there, so when she is moved by events toward the end of the book it is clear that she has finally figured out where she belongs, what and who she cares about. But again she goes about it in such a cold way.

Despite my difficulty with Delia, I really enjoyed this book. I may not empathise, but hers is still a fascinating head to get inside. It really did get me thinking about that common complaint of being unappreciated, trapped in a marriage that has lost all the spark and with the children about to leave home – what’s left? Everybody wants to feel needed, right?

First published in 1982.