After receiving a call from a stranger about her son's ex-girlfriend being injured, Willa flies across the country to Baltimore to take care of her and her nine-year-old daughter.
ANNE TYLER is the author of more than twenty novels. Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
*Starred Review* Tyler, a master of homey enchantment and sly social evisceration whose storytelling finesse has propelled more than 20 novels-including A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) and her clever contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Vinegar Girl (2016)-now delivers an especially lithe and enlivening tale. Willa Drake is a sensitive, patient, and determined 11-year-old in 1967, with a gentle father and a mercurial and wounding mother. In this ensnaring novel's first half, Tyler ticktocks through Willa's life as she becomes a college student, a wife and mother of two sons in California, a young widow, and a new wife to a golf-loving, semiretired executive in Arizona. Willa is neat, sweet, pretty, and gracefully acquiescent, until she receives a phone call from Baltimore, where Denise, a betrayed ex-girlfriend of Willa's older son, is in the hospital after an accidental shooting, leaving her young daughter and dog alone in their humble home. There is no tie between them, yet Willa feels summoned, and then, as she makes herself useful on a funky city block among motley, struggling, warmhearted neighbors, she feels needed. And liberated. Tyler's bedazzling yet fathoms-deep feel-good novel is wrought with nimble humor, intricate understanding of emotions and family, place and community-and bounteous pleasure in quirkiness, discovery, and renewal.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Quintessential Tyler, this brilliant, charming, and book-club-ready novel of quiet transformation will be heralded with a major promotional campaign. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
After a lightweight foray into rewriting Shakespeare (Vinegar Girl, 2016, etc.), Tyler returns to her tried-and-true theme of family life's emotionally charged complexities. Eleven-year-old Willa Drake doesn't really understand the fraught interchanges between her volatile mother and maddeningly mild-mannered father that roil the novel's opening chapter, set in Pennsylvania in 1967. But as the action leapfrogs to 1977 and she impulsively decides to marry college boyfriend Derek after he stands up to her mother on their first meeting, we see that, in a world of self-dramatizers and placaters, Willa has unconsciously decided to be a placater. The chapter detailing Derek's death in a California road-rage incident in 1997 suggests that Willa's placatory pattern is firmly set, an impression buttressed as Part II begins with 61-year-old Willa now married to Peter, another man who patronizes her and expects her to cater to his every whim. But then comes a phone call from Baltimore, where her son's ex-girlfriend Denise has been hospitalized with a broken leg after a mysterious shooting incident by a neighbor under the mistaken impression that Denise's daughter is Willa's granddaughter. This brazenly schematic setup for Willa's late-life regeneration is redeemed by the fact that it's utterly characteristic of our maddeningly mild-mannered heroine that she not only doesn't correct the misunderstanding, but gets on a plane to Baltimore, with Peter in tow complaining all the way. Power dynamics are never simple in Tyler's portraits of marriage, and when Willa needs to, she quietly gets what she wants. As she gets to know Denise's prematurely mature daughter, Cheryl, and the array of eccentric folks on their slightly seedy block—all vibrantly portrayed with Tyler's usual low-key gusto and bracingly dark humor—readers will want Willa to see that others appreciate her sly wit and tolerant acceptance of people's foibles as whiny Peter does not. But w ill she? Tyler drags out the suspense a tad longer than the slight plot merits. More predictable and less profound than her most recent full-scale work (the magical A Spool of Blue Thread, 2015), but Tyler's characteristic warmth and affection for her characters are as engaging as ever. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
The phone call came on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-July. Willa happened to be sorting her headbands. She had laid them out across the bed in clumps of different colors, and now she was pressing them flat with her fingers and aligning them in the compartments of a fabric-covered storage box she’d bought especially for the purpose. Then all at once, ring!
She crossed to the phone and checked the caller ID: a Baltimore area code. Sean had a Baltimore area code. This wasn’t Sean’s number, though, so of course a little claw of anxiety clutched her chest. She lifted the receiver and said, “Hello?”
“Mrs. MacIntyre?” a woman asked.
Willa had not been Mrs. MacIntyre in over a decade, but she said, “Yes?”
“You don’t know me,” the woman said. (Not a reassuring beginning.) She had a flat-toned, carrying voice—an overweight voice, Willa thought—and a Baltimore accent that turned “know me” into “Naomi,” very nearly. “My name is Callie Montgomery,” she said. “I’m a neighbor of Denise’s.”
“Denise, your daughter-in-law.”
Willa didn’t have any daughters-in-law, sad to say. However, Sean used to live with a Denise, so she went along with it. “Oh, yes,” she said.
“And yesterday, she got shot.”
“Got shot in the leg.”
“Who did that?”
“Now, that I couldn’t tell you,” Callie said. She let out a breath of air that Willa mistook at first for laughter, till she realized Callie must be smoking. She had forgotten those whooshing pauses that happened during phone conversations with smokers. “It was just random, I guess,” Callie said. “You know.”
“So off she goes in the ambulance and out of the goodness of my heart I take her daughter back to my house, even though I don’t know the kid from Adam, to tell the truth. I hardly even know Denise! I just moved here last Thanksgiving when I left my sorry excuse for a husband and had to rent a place in a hurry. Well, that’s a whole nother story which wouldn’t interest you, I don’t suppose, but anyhow, I figured I’d be stuck with Cheryl for just a couple of hours, right? Since a bullet in the leg didn’t sound all that serious. But then lo and behold, Denise had to have an operation, so a couple of hours turns into overnight and then this morning she calls and tells me they’re keeping her in the hospital for who-knows-how-much-longer.”
“Oh, dear . . .”
“And I’m a working woman! I work at the PNC Bank! I was already dressed in my outfit when she called. Besides which, I am not used to dealing with children. This has been just about the longest day of my life, I tell you.”
Willa had known that Denise was a single mother, although she’d forgotten how old the child was and she had only a vague recollection that the father was “long gone,” whatever that was supposed to mean. Helplessly, she said, “Well . . . that does sound like a problem.”
“Plus also there is Airplane who I think I might be allergic to.”
“So I go over to Denise’s house and check the numbers on the list above her phone—doctors and veterinarian and whatnot—thinking I will call Sean if I have to although everybody knows Denise wouldn’t even let him back in the house that time to pack his things, and what do I see but where she’s written ‘Sean’s mom’ so I say to myself, ‘Okay, I’m just going to call Sean’s mom and ask her to come get her grandchild.’ ”
Willa couldn’t imagine why her number would be on Denise’s phone list. She said, “Actually—”
“What state is this, anyhow?”
“What state is area code five-two-oh?”
“It’s Arizona,” Willa said.
“So, do you think you could find yourself a flight that gets in this evening? I mean, it must be afternoon for you still, right? And I am losing my mind here, I tell you. I cannot wait to set eyes on you. Me and Cheryl and Airplane all three—we’ll have our noses pressed to the window watching out for you.”
Willa said, “Actually, I’m not . . .”
But this time she stopped speaking on her own, and there was a little pause. Then Callie let out another whoosh of smoke and said, “I live two doors down from Denise. Three fourteen Dorcas Road.”
“Three fourteen,” Willa said faintly.
“You’ve got my number on your phone now, right? Let me know when you find out what time you’re getting in.”
“Wait!” Willa said.
But Callie had hung up by then.
Of course Willa wouldn’t go. That would be crazy. She would have to call Callie back and confess she was not the child’s grandmother. But first she spent an enjoyable moment pretending she might really do this.
The truth was that lately, she had not had quite enough happening in her life. She and her husband had moved this past fall to a golfing community outside of Tucson. (Peter was passionate about golf. Willa didn’t even know how to play.) She had had to leave behind an ESL teaching job that she loved, and she was hoping to find another one, but she hadn’t exactly looked into that yet. She seemed to be sort of paralyzed, in fact. And Peter was out for hours every day with his golf chums, and her sons lived far away—Sean managing the Towson, Maryland, branch of Sports Infinity, Ian doing something environmental in the Sierra Nevada mountains—and both of her parents were dead and she rarely laid eyes on her sister. She didn’t even have any woman friends here, not close ones.
What would a person pack, she wondered, if this person were to contemplate making a trip to Baltimore? It would certainly not be a formal place. She tried to remember whether that A-line dress she liked to travel in was back from the cleaners yet. She went to her closet to check.
By the time her husband returned from his game, she had a seat on the first available flight the next day.