What would it be like if you just up and ran away from your life and started a new one?
That’s the question that’s posed—and answered—in Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. I might have never read the book despite owning a copy if it hadn’t been for Nick Hornby. I bought Ladder of Years at a Borders-becoming-extinct-sale because I was living in Baltimore, and Tyler was the only well known Baltimore writer I knew about. I figured I should read something she wrote. But I didn’t know anything else about her, and after I left Baltimore, I put it in the maybe-someday pile.
Enter: Nick Hornby’s column in the June 2012 issue of The Believer. (SIDE NOTE: That issue also has a sweet essay by Sloane Crosley about being on Gossip Girl and you know how I love Sloane.) His column is called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” and he, um, talks about stuff he’s been reading or is going to read. Uh, kind of like I do here, only way, way, more wittily. Wittily isn’t even a word, is it? Anyway, I know you’re dying to know what Nick’s magic words were, so here they are:
“Before I started reading her books, back in the 1980s, I had no idea that novelists were allowed to do what she did, and still does, namely, write with simplicity, intelligence, humor, and heart about domestic life. Many years later, I realized that she had been given permission because she’s a genius, but the blessing and the curse of her gift is that it seems effortless, and as a consequence she makes lots of idiots, this one included, think that they can do it too.”
So you can see why Ladder of Years climbed up the ladder of my book pile right into my hands. And I think Nick’s comments applied. The story is about a woman who is on a summer vacation with her family and takes a stroll down the beach…and literally doesn’t return. I won’t tell you any more, but the story does work in seemingly simple ways to make you think about bigger things. Like, who would I be if I decided to be someone else? And, could there be a whole other set of priorities that make me happy? And, what would happen if I were completely alone?
The story is incredibly suspenseful purely because you want to know what this woman will do—what will become of her. She’s clearly having a total mid-life crisis, and she does something that a lot of people probably imagine doing. I bet Anne Tyler was sitting around thinking, what if I just ran away? And she wondered what that would actually be like. She does a pretty good job of imagining it for Delia Grinstead, a 40-year-old wife and mother who realizes she isn’t really sure what role she plays in the lives of her family members, or in her own life.
Have you ever run away from your life? If you did, where would you go? What would you do? I think I would go to Burlington, Vermont and work at Ben & Jerry’s.
Image from Knopf Doubleday
Top image via Barnes & Noble