I am the resident Anne Tyler apologist here at CBR. I know she’s rather unpopular in these parts, but I love many of her books. Her prose and her characters’ inner lives often resonate with me. Her books comfort me, and I find them great company during difficult times.
BUT–all that being said, I cannot and will not stand up for Ladder of Years and the truly despicable actions of the main character, Delia Grinstead. Delia, mother of three children (2 college aged and one in high school), gets up and walks out on her family during a beach vacation. She ends up renting a room in a small town a few hours away from her home in Baltimore, and attempts to start over and figure out what she really wants out of her life.
1st unforgivable offense: abandoning your 15-year-old child without any explanation (plus the rest of her family). Her family calls the cops because they think she’s been abducted or killed, for God’s sake. Couples separate all the time. Maybe just tell your husband (who is not abusive, just inattentive) that you want to take a break? Maybe give your child your forwarding address? Also, she takes all their vacation money, while they’re on vacation.
2nd unforgivable offense: Delia walks off impulsively, which ends up meaning she’s in her bathing suit for most of the day, until she buys a dress. Any woman who can spend hours in a bathing suit without actually swimming–and not appear to have a single complaint about physical comfort–is someone who bears watching. This detail distracted me an unhealthy amount, that she’s just sitting around in a swimsuit that she just wore to the beach and is presumably filled with sand and possibly a little damp, and she’s perfectly fine with it. What is this witchcraft, Delia? Then, she only buys one dress. For like, months, she’s wearing one dress around every day, washing it every night. I could barely keep reading, this was so bothersome to me. She gets a job on like her second day in her new town, so I don’t understand why she didn’t go buy at least one other outfit.
Eventually, her family finds her but they don’t really have much contact. She talks to her sister on the phone occasionally, and writes letters to her mother-in-law, but really no contact with her children at all. For like a year. She becomes a sort of live-in caretaker for a 13-year-old boy, Noah, whose parents are separated. She ends up living with him and his father and is sort of a surrogate mother to him. (Spoilers coming) Then, she gets a letter from her daughter asking for help with some details of her upcoming wedding. Delia immediately heads home, ends up reconciling with her husband and trying to repair her relationship with her children. And what happens to Noah? She tells him she’s coming back after her daughter’s wedding, but then she just doesn’t. She just never goes back. And she doesn’t explain to him why.
3rd unforgivable offense: Abandoning a child, after he had come to rely on her, and after he’d already been abandoned by his own mother.
I think I’m supposed to feel sorry for Delia. She cries every night, thinking about her family. But she wants them to chase her, which I just cannot abide. You’re an adult, maybe try sharing your feelings instead of running away. Maybe don’t abandon multiple children in your quest to find yourself. Just, pull yourself together! Ugh. I really do love Anne Tyler, but I don’t think I’ll ever read this one again. I have no patience for Delia. She should be ashamed of herself.