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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 ...

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