Cordelia Grinstead is a wife and mother to three children. Her husband Sam, a doctor, recently suffered a heart attack, (though Delia, as she is commonly known, refers to it as chest pains). At or about the same time her father died after Delia had cared for him for some time in her own home.
Her children are all teenagers and have become more independent and less reliant on their mother. Delia’s husband has become distant and less attentive. Delia has becoming unsure of her role as a mother, a wife and in the world in general.
While on the annual family holiday with her family and her sisters, Eliza and Linda and the latter’s children, Delia asks a young man who was working on the holiday home to drive her to a place she knows nothing of. She asks the young man to stop at a small town and there she begins a new life with only the possessions she is wearing and what is within her tote bag.
On the surface, The Ladder of Years appears to be a run of the mill novel about a middle aged woman going through the proverbial mid-life crisis. This appearance seems justified when you throw stroppy, mumbling, uncommunicative teenagers and an inattentive older husband in to the mix.
However, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Anne Tyler has written a novel that defies cliché, stereotype and one’s preconceived ideas of what a woman’s mid-life crisis looks like. A clever choice on Anne Tyler’s part was to write the book in the third person. It would have been easier to have written the novel in the first person and allow us the reader to get a better and easier understanding of Delia’s motives and thoughts on her behaviour. But writing the novel in the third person puts the reader at a slight distance from Delia so making it harder to empathize or sympathize with her. It makes the reader have to work that bit harder in getting to understand Delia and her reasoning and in this process makes the reading of the novel that much more satisfying.
I also believe that writing in the third person allows many male readers to follow Delia’s character without feelings of being uncomfortable in their male skin than had the novel been written in the first person. It is possible that many male readers would have found it uncomfortable or off putting to follow the character had they had access to her inner thoughts and feelings. By writing in the third person male readers are allowed to keep their distance and not made to feel that they inhabit a female persona.
All the characters within The Ladder of Years are rounded three dimensional people and as a reader I felt that I knew and understood each of the novel’s inhabitants by the end of the book. This knowing and understanding is from the perspective of a friend of the family and not as a family member. By this I mean that as much as I believed I knew the character’s motives and reasons for what they did and how they lived I still couldn’t be sure I was getting the full picture. This I believe was intentional on the author’s part. I believe that Anne Tyler was trying to communicate that we never fully know someone else even when they are family. There are times in our lives when we feel like we are an outsider within our own family group looking in through a window that becomes more opaque as time moves on.
Anne Tyler’s novel is a well crafted moving and at times funny novel that will not disappoint any reader, even the male of the species.
Originally posted at http://thevoyageout-bookreviews.blogspot.co.uk/