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Walking Out

Ladder of Years

By Anne Tyler

Alfred A. Knopf

326 pp., $24

In flight from domesticity.

John Updike has observed that if some curious soul years from now wants to know what daily life was like in a typical American household in the late twentieth century, the place to go would be Anne Tyler's novels. Tyler's characters are charmingly quirky but not bizarre; the events that overtake them are the stuff of every life. She has a rare gift for making us take the ordinary seriously. And this knack makes her a great spiritual resource, for as the late Walker Percy observed, the gravest challenge of our time may be how to make it through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.

Cordelia Grinstead, the protagonist of Ladder of Years, is mired in a conventionality that seems nearly quaint. At the age of 40, she has never left home. Like Shakespeare's heroine, she was the youngest and fondest of her father's three daughters. When only 17, she married the physician who came to share her father's practice. She recalls the fairy-tale quality of Sam Grinstead's arrival: like the woodcutter's son, he surveyed the three daughters and chose the one who was the youngest and the fairest, and as a bonus received the kingdom.

Three children and 23 years after her wedding, Delia begins to feel she has outgrown the fairy tale. Her father's death and her children's prickly independence cause her to feel ill at ease in the familiar house that doubles as a clinic in an old Baltimore neighborhood. She wonders aloud to her son, "When did sweet and cute turn into silly and inefficient?" She feels insignificant-"a tiny gnat, whirring around her family's edges."

Despite her unhappiness with what she increasingly sees as her decorative role in someone else's fairy tale, Delia's revolt leads her not away from but into fantasy. She pretends to be the girlfriend of a man she never saw before when he is surprised by his estranged wife at the grocery store. The jolt of this feigned courtship is pleasant, and Delia soon finds herself longing for more.

It is no doubt this episode that prepares Delia to carry out what is surely a universal middle-age fantasy. During the annual family beach vacation, she goes for a walk and doesn't return. Through a series of small, unplanned steps, she comes to desert her family and set up a new identity for herself in Bay Borough, a town where she is entirely unknown. There she becomes Miss Grinstead, the cool, aloof, and remarkably efficient spinster.

Of course, the question that presses itself upon the reader is whether Delia's new fantasy will lead her home or to some brave new world. Bay Borough becomes a sort of island where she is free to come to herself. Inevitably, new entanglements begin to envelop her, reminding her of old ties and at the same time drawing her away from them. Two men-her new employer and her husband-stand ready to fit her with Cinderella's glass slipper. Which will she choose?

A novel with the flavor of a fable, Ladder of Years both echoes and subverts fashionable tales of self-realization. Delia Grinstead is in some ways Ibsen's Nora Helmer years later. She repeats a pattern that has become commonplace in our time: that of the woman who feels she must leave her doll's house if she is ever to become autonomous. But unlike the stories of hard-won womanly independence that we have grown used to, here we have a case where the protagonist, having proved herself to her own satisfaction, is drawn toward the kind of domestic role she abandoned.

One of the lessons that Delia seems to learn is that keeping the hearth is an essential and a potentially fulfilling duty. It is also one to which she is particularly suited. In her role as Miss Grinstead, she finds herself arranging a homey Thanksgiving dinner for a female friend who hopes to impress a new beau. She senses and fills the vacuum in the life of an adolescent boy whose mother has traded the kitchen for the television studio. And she learns that the decisive, competent, and apparently infallible man she married has not been able to maintain the social fabric that she, after all, did manage to weave through all those years.

The novel suggests that the nurturing functions women have traditionally served are vital; denigration of them is as pernicious as the assumption that women are fit for nothing else. In Delia's case, it is the freedom she seizes for herself by walking out on her family that finally makes it possible for her to choose the kind of obligations she felt enslaved by before.

This freedom has a recognizably Tyleresque cast. According to the intuition of Delia's New Age sister, Delia was a cat in a former life and thus has a special understanding of them. The cats Delia knows so well are devoted yet intractable; their attachment to people and places is not submission. Delia accepts that she cannot control the lives of others; most especially, she refuses to coerce her children into the shape others think they should take. And she claims this prerogative to engage others on her own terms for herself. Her form of self-possession has about it a quality that may reflect Tyler's Quaker roots. Delia refuses to act until inwardly moved to do so. And when she has nothing to say on a subject, she says nothing. She respects silence.

There is much to admire in Delia; she has a kind of mystic individualism that still requires commitment to others. Her refusal to control others or to attempt to dictate the course of her own life is at least an analogue of a life lived by reliance on God's providence. But there is also something troubling about her passivity: she declines to wring from her husband or herself that word of confession that alone makes full reconciliation-with God or with neighbor-possible.

Regardless of how we judge her solutions, Tyler's latest protagonist has much to show us about the hidden currents of our own lives. Knowing what we are tired of is, after all, not the same as knowing what we want.


"The value of heresy is something traditional religious groups do not know how to appreciate, for heresy disturbs their fragile definition of truth."

-The Right Reverend John S. Spong, in a blurb for Crimes of Perception: An Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics, by Leonard George (Paragon House).

"It is obvious from her conversation that Christianity is important to Ms. Pagels.

It 'fascinates' her; she 'participates' in it. But she backs away from the word 'believe.' For her, religious experience is more important than religious faith."

-Ellen K. Coughlin, profiling Elaine Pagels, author of The Origin of Satan (Random House), in The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 14, 1995).

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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