Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Reading Anne Tyler’s 20th novel  A Spool of Blue Thread, reviewed here, first felt a little like turning to the back of the book before reading it through. This is how it ends, three generations upended, we found out how they came to be and what their origins were at the end.

ladder of yearsI wanted to try another Anne Tyler novel to have a better sense of her work and so I asked around for recommendations and eventually decided on Ladder of Years.

What a great book!

Still set in the same small town Baltimore, another family, this time we are inside the mind of Delia Grinstead, the youngest of three adult sisters, daughters of a local GP who has recently passed away. He had been living with Delia and her husband, who is also a GP, one who took over the practice from her father where Delia remained the administrator, first to her father, then to her husband, never leaving home.

A smooth transition from daughter of the Doctor to wife of the Doctor, the same home, raising three children, taking the same holiday year after year, viewing the same holiday neighbours over the fence year after year, speculating about their family members, having never spoken a word to them.

Delia doesn’t appear disgruntled, but one day while on holiday she walks off down the beach (a bit like our Harold Fry) in her husband’s beach robe and just keeps going.

What follows is something like the winding back of the clock, a version of what her life might have been, had her husband chosen sister number 1 or sister number 2 and not sister number 3, Delia.

It’s not dramatic, it’s almost sensible, if we can use that word about someone who just walks out on their life like that. She expresses no hatred, disappointment or loss, she thinks only about herself in the present and responds always to the requests of others – rather than see fault in her own actions, she interprets others confusion or hurt with, “if they had only asked”, she offers little proactively and yet will respond to anything if asked.

ladderShe is something of an enigma and at first I wondered how she could so easily leave behind her children without much thought, then I wondered if she was menopausal, because at that time women lose a lot of that hormone that makes them so fiercely protective and maternal towards their children, or were they just more grown up and less in need of her?

She doesn’t have a lot to say about her motives, it is as if she acted without understanding the deep need inside her to move. Another reader commented she reminds me of a spoiled youngest born who does just about everything without motivation

I don’t have much of an insight into youngest borns as a type, but Delia was certainly quietly mysterious, I found the novel compelling, without any clear or stated motivation, she was unpredictable and yet ever so conservative.

Brilliantly constructed, a compelling read, I really enjoyed Ladder of Years and was intrigued right up until the last page. And bizarrely, there is also a spool of blue thread in this book, a small detail written twenty years ago(published in 1995), that would one day grow up to become an entire novel of its own.

20 thoughts on “Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

  1. She is a wonderful writer. Heard her speak in Oxford last year and describe how she creates her characters at her desk then lets them talk to her as she does the housework! She reminds me somewhat of Jane Austen in that she takes one small geographical area, Baltimore, and mines it for social universality. Someone asked her if she watched the Wire and she just laughed.

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    • I can well imagine her writing process being just like that, it sounds comfortable and reliable, like constant companions she takes for a walk now and then to clear the air and uncover the knotty issues.

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  2. Lovely review, Claire. Having discovered that my partner had never read an Anne Tyler, I forced A Spool of Blue Thread into his hands, then Ladder of Years when he asked for another. I love the blue thread detail – I assume H hasn’t got there yet as he hasn’t mentioned it and I’ve long since forgotten it. Anyway, pleased that you’ve become a convert. You have a delightfully long backlist to wend your way through.

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  3. What a great review! This was my first Tyler & can’t wait to read more… the Preface is one of the best I’ve seen. Such a fantastic blend of humour & pathos making the ordinary extraordinary. Hoping to start Blue Thread next week

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  4. Great to read your thoughts about this. Delia does have a lot of contradictions and her motivation seems just out of reach, but I suspect that’s because it is for her as well. Good spot picking up on the blue thread in it! How funny.

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    • Wonderful insight Eric, I think that explains so much, Delia is acting on an instinct she never seems to explore in her mind, she just acts and so the judgement of what might have motivated her is left to the reader, which creates an interesting discussion point, I think this would an interesting bookclub novel, bound to elicit a variety of responses and opinions.

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  5. I enjoyed your review, Claire. Do you know, I’ve never read Anne Tyler! I don’t know why as I’m sure her novels would suit me. (It’s funny how some writers just pass us by over the years.)

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    • Well me too Jacqui, A Spool of Blue Thread was my first and I thought that wasn’t quite right to begin with an author’s 20th novel, so now I’ve read two! And delighted to have found a thread between the two😉

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  6. I read this book decades ago, and I loved it then. Somehow she didn’t strike me as selfish at all. As you carefully pointed out, whereas the woman in Eat Pray Love was so nauseatingly self-absorbed I couldn’t finish it. There was a whole string of Anne Tyler books I read voraciously, then a few ones which struck me as odd, then Spool of Blue Thread brought me back full circle to “singing her praises.” You might very well like Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, and Breathing Lessons, too.

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    • You’re right Bellezza, it’s one of the contradicitons that even though she walks out on her family, she remains in character as one who serves others, it’s as if she was no longer required and went in search of where she might be needed, without ever articulating that or perhaps even understanding it, she just ended up doing what was always true to her character, working and serving others and its hard to find fault in that.

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  7. I’m so pleased you loved this, Claire, it’s one of my favourites. I read it in my late teens and it had such an impact on me. I don’t think anyone had suggested it was okay to live a different life to the marriage – kids route before. I look forward to reading your reviews about the rest of the back list.

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  8. I must have read this book 25 years ago but I don’t honestly remember much about it. I should probably give it a re-read. I’ve read her entire back catalogue and there’s not really a dud in it. My favourite is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which I had to read at school, followed by the quite hilarious Accidental Tourist. More recently I’ve enjoyed the Amateur Marriage and Digging to America. She does family dynamics and human contradictions better than anyone else writing today.

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    • I’ve had quite a few recommedations for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, yes those contradicitons are great talking points, I can see how her work really appeals in bringing out those contraditiciotns in the mundane. Thanks for the additional recommendations Kim, great to have such a backlist on offer and titles easily found in the library!

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  9. This is one of my most memorable Tylers I must say – after The accidental tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I loved the idea of it – not that I wanted to emulate it! – but I loved the way Tyler took an idea and pushed it just enough to make us think but not so much to make it completely absurd. Surprising, odd, yes, but not totally out of the realm of possibility. And, I thought she ended it nicely too.

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