In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

November 2018

 - Thursday, November 15, 2018

Anne Tyler’s latest novel Clock Dance is a very quiet, inoffensive book, whose central character, Willa Drake, is as mild and equable as the book itself. It would be easy to dismiss both Willa and Clock Dance, but I find myself thinking about it months after I read it. In fact some catastrophic things happen in Willa’s life—when the narrative starts, she is a school child, and her histrionic mother has just gone missing. However she remains like a duck calmly floating on the surface while  its legs paddle furiously underneath. We follow Willa through some rather alarming key moments to her early 60s, when she finds herself summoned to Baltimore, to look after Cheryl, a child she has never met, after her mother is shot in the leg. From here the novel changes, and as Willa becomes more submerged in the community around Cheryl and her mother, she also rises from the flatness her own life, and becomes her own person, not just a reflection of other people’s needs and wishes. Anne Tyler’s characters have a common thread, they are not necessarily likeable, but always recognisable and memorable, and Willa Drake is no exception—she is quite irritating in her passivity, but ultimately, and reassuringly, it’s never to late to change.

The mother and son in Patrick de Witt’s French Exit, could not be more different from Willa Drake. Frances and Malcolm are on their uppers, and find themselves forced to make a ‘French exit’ (making a hasty retreat without advising anyone) from New York to sail to Paris where they stay in a borrowed apartment. Mystery surrounds Frances, she is a famous beauty who has been tainted by scandal. Her son Malcolm has an alarming case of arrested development, and with their strange little cat Small Frank, they make an odd trio. The facetious tone of the book masks the drama—Frances is really quite outrageous, and Malcolm is frustrating, and as the small apartment fills up with people, the situation becomes more absurd. There is a very arch, macabre undertow in the narrative—particularly on the ship they make their exit on. The ship’s doctor cheerfully tells Malcolm ‘You get a body a day. That’s the industry standard for an Atlantic crossing’. There is a timeless quality about French Exit, and it’s  very cinematic to read—it was easy imagine Katharine Hepburn playing Frances, and Jimmy Stewart playing Malcolm, but I don’t know who would be Small Frank. Louise