David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Anne Tyler’s “Ladder of Years”

Anne Tyler's 'Ladder of Years'This book review was originally published in the Baltimore City Paper on July 26, 1995.

While Gloria Steinem tossed her bras into the bonfire, Delia Felson sat posing on her father’s couch trying to catch the attention of Sam Grinstead, the young new doctor in his practice. While Erica Jong paraded her insatiable sexuality on the pages of bestsellers, Delia Grinstead tended house for her husband and three children. Through the ERA and MacKinnon/Dworkin and Susan Faludi, Delia remained ensconced in her quiet Roland Park home, oblivious to the outside world and riveted to her husband’s every word.

In Anne Tyler’s thirteenth novel, Ladder of Years, Delia suddenly wonders: after over 20 years of marriage, is it too late to change your mind?

Suddenly this most predictable of suburban housewives starts an affair with the 32-year-old editor and publisher of a local ‘zine on time travel. Then without premeditation, Delia abandons her husband and children on a family vacation to start a new independent life in rural Bay Borough, Maryland, a life which she imagines will be perfect. “It was possible to review her entire morning thus far and find not a single misstep,” Tyler writes.

But has Delia picked the wrong model of feminism to follow? Is Delia comfortable playing the woman of independent means, or has she been conned into thinking she’s missed something about life by remaining faithful to her husband?

Ladder of Years poses an awful lot of tough questions about women’s liberation, and Tyler’s lack of straight answers is at once artful and irritating. The quiet Sam Grinstead remains purposefully ambiguous — one moment an unfeeling ogre who assures her he will not “invade her privacy” in her new life, the next a shy doctor who has a difficult time understanding and expressing his feelings. And Delia trivializes her own rebellion by her behavior in Bay Borough, where she takes up a nanny/housekeeper job that differs from her role in Baltimore only in terms of salary.

So the question remains: are Delia’s child-rearing impulses the subtle resurgence of a male-dominated power structure, or simply the return of her natural mothering instincts? Is she a halfhearted revolutionary too fickle to follow through on her ambitions, or a rebel without a cause who’s been fooling herself about the horrors of marriage?

By Ladder of Years‘ conclusion, Delia is caught between a rock and a hard place: she can neither stay in Bay Borough or go back home to Roland Park without compromising her ideals and her promises. Tyler is smart enough not to come to any pat conclusions at novel’s end, and the novel’s final scenes provide a queasy resolution so carefully worded as to send critics and English graduate students arguing for years over their meaning.

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