Cordelia (Delia) Grinstead, the heroine of Anne Tyler's umpteenth novel set in Baltimore, is a bored housewife, who feels her doctor husband doesn't love her enough, and that her nearly adult children have little need of her. Being a woman of few interests or intellectual resources, she deals with her boredom by having an affair, with a man called Adrian who chats her up at the supermarket. When the affair is discovered, rather than worry about her husband's feelings, explain her misery to him or try to get help, Delia simply walks away, in her bathing suit, on a beach holiday. She hitches a lift to the small, picturesque town of Bay Borough, buys some new clothes, finds a room to rent in the house of a man-chasing 37-year-old called Belle, and gets a job as a legal secretary. Gradually, she begins to make friends, gets a job more to her liking as housekeeper for a separated headmaster and carer for his small son Noah, and begins to feel she's become independent. But has she? And is a new life worth giving up her family back home?
Anne Tyler has described herself in interviews as a 'not at all spiritual' person, whose fascination is with the small things of everyday life. There are of course lots of writers, spiritual or not, who've written well about everyday life - from Jane Austen to Anthony Trollope to Tyler's modern female contemporaries such as Tessa Hadley or Margaret Drabble in Britain, Carol Shields and Alice Munro in Canada and Sue Miller in America (to name only a very few). Unfortunately I found - in this novel at least - that Tyler's desire to write about 'everyday folk' led her to create horribly banal and bland characters. The world of this book is stiflingly provincial - a society filled with characters who seem to have no interests - intellectual, cultural or of any other kind - other than banal family get togethers that no one really enjoys, and a bit of popular cinema and television-watching. (Delia does attempt to read great classic works of literature in her early months of solitude, but gives up and takes up cheap romances soon enough.) The women are rather doll-like creatures obsessed with men and family, and often with silly names like Bootsie and Binky, or bossy young entrepreneurs who like being the centre of attention (like weather-girl Ellie, or Delia's daughter Susan, a budding saleswoman). The men are all inarticulate manly types, often with surnames (Ramsay, Driscoll, Carroll) for Christian names, hopeless at emotional engagement. Nobody seems to have any interest in the world outside the immediate circle of family and friends, no one travels much outside Baltimore, and the greatest treat anyone can imagine seems to be a Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes with marshmallows.
The plot of 'Ladder of Years' had some promise (midlife crisis novels are often interesting) but didn't really go anywhere, and had some very unconvincing twists. Why did Delia (who didn't appear hysterical or even depressed) run away in her bathing suit, rather than making a concentrated plan of escape? I could just about believe she might be lucky enough to get a flat and a job in the same day, on arrival at Bay Borough, but couldn't believe at all in her lack of concern for her family. Would she really, when her son Carroll visited her in anger and distress, only have been concerned with eating a barbecue pork sandwich? And wouldn't she have wanted some involvement with her daughter's wedding, if she still loved her so much? Wouldn't Sam, if he adored Delia as much as he claims, have tried to come to see her and talk to her? Would Delia, having already done the 'kid' thing three times over, have been so keen to start all over again with the demanding and spoilt Noah? Towards the end of the book, I felt that Tyler had run out of interest in plot altogether - there were too many weird happenings (as when Ellie turned up, attacked Delia for no reason then crashed her car), the plotline involving Binky wasn't worked properly into the narrative, and the whole episode with Delia's daughter Susan turning down her husband-to-be at the altar on the grounds that they didn't have enough in common, whereas really she was just annoyed because he'd been rude to someone on the phone (followed by Driscoll and Delia's desperate attempt to track down said person) just got silly, particularly in the final stages. And as other reviewers have noticed, the novel didn't really end, it just drifted off, with many loose ends, such as what would happen to George the cat, unresolved.
Tyler's said that she doesn't care nearly as much about plot as about character. The trouble was that I felt the characters in this book were pretty shallow and bland, and certainly didn't distract me from the lack of plot. Delia was constantly compared to a cat, but had little of this animal's charm or independence. She came across as a rather pathetic woman with few independent resources, who just staggered from one life in which she was swamped with domestica to another. There was no sense of her coming to any self-realization (apart, perhaps, from the fact that she liked running a family) during her time in Bay Borough, and she showed worryingly little concern for her family, particularly her husband. Sam was more sympathetic, but pretty unreadable, and it was hard to work out what he really felt about his marriage. The couple's children were so bland as to be totally forgettable. I had hopes that Susie's marital crisis might have been because she didn't want to be trapped in the same sort of life as her mother - but her quarrel with Driscoll just turned into something petty. Joel was pathetic, Ellie a caricature of the temperamental television star, Belle a kind of middle-aged American Bridget Jones, Noah a spoilt little brat who took Delia for granted. Binky, 'a rotund little person' was as sugary as her name implied, and Tyler made little of her relationship with Nate. Delia's sisters were also caricatures - the bolshy environmental activist, and the pretentious would-be sophisticate - and some of their conversations with Delia (as when Linda suggested Delia divorce Sam and get him to lose his own house) were very silly. The only really interesting people were the two cats, Vernon and George, and the two elderly people, Sam's mother Eleanor (though all that scene about the roast chicken at the start was pretty daft) and wise old Nate. Here, Tyler could write very movingly, particularly in Nate's description of how we want to rewrite life. But these - like the beautiful scenes with Delia curled up reading on Christmas Eve, or in bed last thing at night with her book and George on her seat - were flashes of brilliance in what I found was overall a very dull read.
On reading more about Tyler, I found out that she herself is far from being an 'everyday woman': she is a brilliant university graduate, with a degree in Russian, the widow of an eminent Iranian-American child psychologist, and, along with her writing success, a gifted painter. One wonders (as one does with some of E.M. Forster's working-class characters) how many of these 'everyday people' with 'little lives' Tyler actually knows. Somehow, her description of them in this book - in comparison to her really insightful writing in earlier works such as 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' - feels rather false and superficial, and meant that I really didn't enjoy this book at all.