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Ladder of Years

By Anne Tyler
352 pages; Ballantine Books

You're on vacation with your family. All year, you've wondered—where did all the fun go? Your husband, who at one time couldn't keep his hands off you, no longer seems to give you even a second glance. Your teenage kids are in full-out disdain mode. Honestly, you don't think of yourself in the same way anymore either. Was I ever all that?, you ask yourself. You want—no, you need—a change, and it needs to be something radical.

Enter Anne Tyler's novel Ladder of Years. While spending a week at the beach with her husband, three kids, siblings and assorted in-laws, 40-year-old Delia Grinstead, whose ego has shrunk to the size of an invisible speck, goes for a stroll and suddenly envisions "a map of the entire East Coast from Nova Scotia to Florida," in which she is "a dot in motion, heading south." Without advance planning, or even a change of clothes, she is soon in a car heading inland, running away from home.

She randomly alights in a dumpy small town, and gets a musty room in a boardinghouse owned by an over-sharing realtor named Belle. Tyler's genius can make the smallest, drabbest of life's details seem simultaneously exotic and cozy. Here, Delia's tiny, badly lit rented room transforms into a soothing refuge where the outdoor light shining in on her bare-bones cot is, "a slant of warm gold." When she steps into the shower that night, "Grime and sweat and sunblock streamed off her, uncovering a whole new layer of skin...The new nightgown drifted airily over her scorched shoulders." She lands a position as a legal secretary—a role she'd never have thought she was up to in real life—and rebrands herself the self-reliant, utterly efficient Miss Grinstead. Time passes. Soon it's Thanksgiving, and still she's there. Miss Grinstead's competence and independence would never be questioned.

So why does Delia's escape, which, after all, is not to Paris or to some Caribbean island, but just a short distance from her hometown, feel like such a seductive adventure in Tyler's hands? And why, by the time Delia finally goes back to her family, does she seem so different from the mousy, indecisive woman she was at the beginning of the book? She's even begun to seem...admirable.

Every time I go back to a Tyler novel—especially to this one, first published in 1996—there's something thrillingly dystopian in her inversions of domestic life. The cluelessness of her protagonists—each a sweet survivor in a world that asks way too much of them—makes reading each novel like diving under the covers of a freshly made bed; immediately, we let down our guard. Within the delicately etched universes she creates, we too can find a solitary haven to curl up in, complete with a cat who will lick but never scratch us, and a bedroom in which we can cry ourselves to sleep or read Chekhov's stories (which Delia does, deviating from her usual diet of Harlequin romances) without worrying that the light is disturbing the person next to us. Delia has to upend her entire family and embark on a complete time-life redo, before anyone even gradually begins to see her in a whole new light. We don't have to go to such extremes. Just by reading Tyler's fiction, we get to go far away, without leaving home, without anyone even knowing we've been gone.
— Leigh Haber