"Ladder of Years," by Anne Tyler. 325 pages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $24
"Ladder of Years" is Ms. Tyler's 13th novel. It is not as ambitiously tragic as "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," which clinched Ms. Tyler's fame. Neither is it as exhilaratingly readable as "The Accidental Tourist," which was made into a movie almost pleasing as the book. But, for the most part, "Ladder of Years" is a "page-turner" in the best sense.
One wants to lightly caress the pages of the story because one cares for Ms. Tyler's touchingly flawed characters, for her forgiving way of looking at Baltimore, at human fate, at family love and family failure to love. It is not only the feline itch to satisfy curiosity that makes this book a page-turner, but also our heartfelt philosophic yen to come to terms with the possibility or impossibility of love.
At last, the reader feels a refreshing compulsion to rush, with Ms. Tyler, to the end of a tale that is both cheap Harlequin romance and the truest, and therefore the most contradictory, of love stories. In a dance of amazingly controlled slapstick, Ms. Tyler ties and unties and reties her true love's knot, leaving the reader comfortably exhausted with the iffy wisdom of the book's finale.
"Ladder of Years" has already been criticized by some for mixing soap opera elements with the expected luminosity of Ms. Tyler's long-admired realism. But that's the whole point! The novel's heroine, Delia Grinstead, is a "flower-faced" fortyist southern belle, very house-wifey, who lives in the general Roland Park section of Baltimore with her three children and her overly self-assured physician husband. She seems to make such a slight impression on her own family that, when she abandons the family on a whim during their annual visit to the seashore, the best description of her that her loved-ones can make to the police is that "her eyes are blue or gray or perhaps green."
Often hilariously - and sometimes bleakly - Ms. Tyler traces Delia's fairy-tale adventure as she remakes her life without thinking much about it, more or less getting a new family and new friends and new, perhaps even tidier, ideals in a tiny, out-of-the-way town.
Delia is both brave and passive, addicted to trashy romance novels that actually come alive - sort of - in her new life. Will she return to her old family who sort of need her and whom she sort of misses? Will the various weddings come off? Is it true that Delia has escaped middle age by means of "a time trip that worked"?
The title of the novel is a phrase coined by an old codger who tried to dodge age by marrying a youngish woman named Binky. It refers to life being like a slide in a children's playground where you go up "the ladder of years" and find yourself suddenly sliding down. Does fantasy lead to a slide down ruthless reality? Or does Ms. Tyler have it both ways? Life is a soap opera, a cheap Harlequin romance. And yet it is also life - our mere, bare, lonely, crowded, brilliant life.
Both madcap and genteel, Anne Tyler knows as well as anyone that "human beings lead many lives." Casually, delightfully, "Ladder of Years" will tell you just how we humans manage this trick.
Stephen Margulies is a curator at the Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His poetry appears in "Some Say Tomato," an anthology of poetry. His articles have appeared in the New Art Examiner, V Magazine, the Observer, the Charlottesville Review and Timbuktu magazine, as well as The Sun.