Thursday, November 29, 2018

Two Willas: Kingsolver and Tyler's 2018 Novels

Since I usually keep one audiobook in my car while I read another in print, occasionally I experience overlap between the two. When Barbara Kingsolver appeared in Nashville last month as part of the library’s Salon@615, she not only talked about Unsheltered,her newest novel, but about the whole body of her work. She remarked on the disconcerting feeling when a fan told her that one of her first novels was her best book ever. Ann Patchett was conducting the interview, and the two of them agreed that their favorite book was usually the most recent. They expressed a hope that their writing had matured and improved.

Kingsolver noted that over time her writing had become, she hoped, more economical. She indicated an awareness that she didn’t have patience for extraneous details in a story at this point in her life.

When I discovered that the main character in the modern section of her new novel was named Willa, as was the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel Clock Dance, my current audiobook, I could not help drawing comparisons.

Unsheltered is set in the same house in Vineland, New Jersey, both in the current day and in the period following the Civil War. Willa Knox and her husband have moved into the house as he continues his futile quest for tenure. Just as their lives begin to fall apart around them, they find that their house also is built on an inadequate foundation. Living in the house with them is their daughter Tig (Antigone), who has returned from Cuba sporting blonde dreadlocks, ready to take on the system. They are also caring for her father-in-law, whose extreme conservative views not only conflict with the rest of the family but are at odds with their need to sign on to Obamacare and Medicaid to afford his medical care. When it seems life couldn’t get any more complicated, their son’s partner, after giving birth to his child, commits suicide, leaving him grief-stricken but responsible for a newborn.

In the earlier time period of the book, Thacker Greenwood has recently married a woman whose social status surpasses his own, but whose marriages provides a home for her recently widowed mother and her spunky sister. Thacker finds himself an outsider in the town originally designed as a utopian experiment, history Kingsolver has researched. As he crosses horns with his employer over his desire to teach Darwinian principles to his students, he befriends Mary Treat. Kingsolver discovered the historical Treat in her research, a fascinating woman who conducted correspondence with Darwin, as well as Asa Gray and other prominent male scientists and thinkers of her day.

At the core of both stories, Kingsolver paints a picture of the fragile state of middle class Americans when both their employment and their actual home begins to crumble around them. 

In Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, she takes a different approach from Kingsolver’s economy of narrative, focuses instead on the life of one woman—from childhood into her sixties—in microscopic detail. Her narrative opens with Willa a young girl in the home with a volatile mother, prone to disappearing, and a more stable, gentle father. Tyler takes readers along through Willa’s life, marrying her first college sweetheart, which deters her from finishing college. As a mother of two young sons, she experiences tragic loss, but moves on with her life, remarrying and settling into life. 

Willa’s life seems a series of disappointments—or at least a life of settling—until she gets a phone call from Baltimore, the setting of most of Tyler’s fiction. The woman who calls tells Willa she needs to come and take care of her granddaughter, whose mother has been shot. But Willa doesn’t have a granddaughter. She puts together the details and realizes the girl’s mother is her older son’s former girlfriend. Even without a real family tie, though, she decides to fly to Baltimore to take care of nine-year-old Cheryl, much to her husband’s dismay.

As her inexplicable sense of responsibility keeps her in Baltimore even after her husband decides to return home, she develops a stronger sense of family and belonging in the neighborhood where she is staying. She eventually finds the truth behind the seemingly random shooting, a contrast to an odd scene in the novel, when her seatmate on her first airplane flight tells her he has a gun against her ribs. In that case, no one even seems to believe her story or take it seriously.

Willa recalls a conversation with her father after he finds himself alone after her mother’s death:

I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned that has helped me,” he said. “Shall I?” “Yes, tell me,” she said, growing still. “I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.” She thought that over. “But…” she said. He waited. “But…is that enough?” she asked him. “Well, yes, it turns out that it is,” he said.” 

Willa inevitably has to decide how much is enough in her own life. Tyler writes not economically but with a close eye to the many details that add up to one’s life.

Just as Kingsolver has shifted her focus, streamlining her narrative over her career, I find that I am sometimes less patient with too much attention to detail. Sometimes, though, my patience as I read pays off, as it did with Tyler's Clock Dance.



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