Ladder of Years

A Novel
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"BALTIMORE WOMAN DISAPPEARS DURING FAMILY VACATION." The headlines are all the same: Beloved mother and wife Delia Grinstead was last seen strolling down the Delaware shore, wearing only a bathing suit and carrying a beach tote with five hundred dollars tucked inside. To the best of her family's knowledge, she has disappeared without a trace.
But Delia didn't disappear. She ran.
Exhausted with her routine and everyone else's plans for her, Delia needed an out, a chance to make a new life for herself and to become a different person. The new Delia can let go of all the hurt and resentment that left her stuck in her past. As she eagerly sheds the pieces of herself she no longer needs, Delia discovers feelings of passion and wonder she'd long since forgotten. The thrill of walking away from it all leads to a newfound sense of self and the feeling that she is, finally, the star of her own life story.

Reader's Guide

1. Why did Delia walk away from her family on that Delaware beach? And why did she stay away for so long?

2.Delia has always lived in a very crowded house. Discuss the pressures and rewards of several generations living under one roof.

3.Why doesn’t any member of Delia’s family ask her to come home? Do you think it would have made a difference?

4.Discuss how the world Dr. Felson once inhabited changes after his death.

5.Do you think the father’s death has freed the Felson sisters in some way?

6.Do you think Linda’s relationship with Sam mirrors her relationship with her father?

7.Delia and Ellie are both judged harshly for their decision to leave their families. Do you think society judges mothers more harshly than fathers if they leave?

8.At the beginning of the novel, Delia sees herself as “a tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges”? How does her perspective change over the course of the novel?

9.Eliza insists that Delia has memories of their mother and Delia is incensed that Sam does not remember their very first meeting. Discuss the conflict that arises in this novel over the individualistic and idiosyncratic nature of family history and memory.

10.At the end of the novel, Delia concludes that “the people she had left behind had actually traveled further, in some ways.” What does she mean?

11.Delia concludes that “[u]nlike Nat’s . . . hers had been a time trip that worked.” Do you agree?

12.Do you think Nat and Binky will persevere despite all the obstacles in their path?

13.Delia has to learn how to dine out alone. What other kinds of public activities are awkward to do solo? Does it differ for men and for women?

14.Belle says, “[M]ost folks marry just because they decide they’ve reached that stage . . . Then they pick someone out.” Do you agree?

15.Do you think Eliza has been pining for Sam for all those years?

16.Delia finds support in unexpected places and from unexpected people. Did Eleanor’s support surprise you?

17.Eleanor tells Delia that after her husband’s death reading the dictionary comforted and distracted her. Discuss rituals and habits that offer comfort in times of need.

18.What do you think of the ending of this novel? Does it make emotional sense to you?

19.Share your favorite description of a character with the group.

20.What would you ask the author if you could interview her?

21.Did your group enjoy this novel? How does it compare with other works your group has read?

22.What is your group reading next? How do you make your selections?

Q & A

Q: How would you describe this novel to a potential reader?

Anne Tyler: I think Nat says it best: it's a time trip. If you look at Delia's journey from one angle, it is nothing but an attempt to travel back through the life she's already lived, doing it right this time (as in the unnamed movie, Groundhog Day, referred to toward the end of the book). Symbolically speaking, in her new life she acquires new sisters, a new son, a new husband, and a new father, and she tries to make a better job of it the second time around.

Q: Is Delia a reliable narrator?

AT: Not always. The more difficult aspects of her father's character, for instance, and Adrian's continued attachment to his wife are just two of the unwelcome truths she manages to hide from herself.

Q: Your protagonist Cordelia is the youngest and favorite of three daughters of a powerful father. How did King Lear influence the writing of this novel?

AT: It really didn't. I had chosen the name Delia before it occurred to me that it must be "Cordelia," and while Adrian does refer to the King Lear connection I wouldn't make too much of it.

Q: Delia's deceased father is a central figure in this novel, but he is obscured by Delia's worshipful memories. How would her sisters and husband describe him?

AT: Her sisters would say he was sexist and domineering; Sam would no doubt bring up Dr. Felson's post-retirement habit of listening in on patients' phone calls. I particularly enjoyed writing the scenes where these facts emerged so clearly but remained unremarked upon by Delia.

Q: Why did you choose the profession of medical doctor for Delia's father and husband?

AT: I was looking for a profession with some power, since Delia's sheltered life–from father's hands to husband's, with no break–seemed to require that.

Q: You capture perfectly teenagers' cruelty to their parents in this novel. Do you think such behavior is a necessary rite of passage to adulthood?

AT: I wouldn't call it cruelty, exactly, but I do think that it's necessary at some point for teenagers to draw back and view their parents with a cooler eye. (Notice what happens when they never go through this stage–as Delia obviously never did with her father.)

Q: What is a reader to make of the parallels between Delia's handling of and socializing of teenagers and cats?

AT: I was very fond of Delia and I wanted readers to be fond of her too. One of the qualities I hoped they would find endearing was her graceful and intuitive touch with both cats and children.

Q: Is her friendship with Nat the most important new relationship Delia has formed and the most important for her to sustain?

AT: Not really. Nat is only one member of the "surrogate family" she constructs for herself on her journey.

Q: Would Delia really have come home sooner if Sam had asked her to?

AT: She was very hurt when he didn't ask her, but I suspect that if he had, she'd have invented some quibble with his tone, his wording–some flaw that would allow her to say no and go on with her sojourn until the moment she was ready to return.

Q: So much is left unsaid by your characters. Would you agree that, among many other things, you are a novelist of the inarticulate?

AT: I would be happy to be called that. I've always been fascinated by what's unspoken in a conversation, what's revealed by mere gesture or by silence or by talking too much about something completely irrelevant.

Q: Your descriptions of characters, even the most minor, are so specific and evocative. How much work goes into creating a minor character such as Rosemary Bly-Brice?

AT: Minor characters tend to arrive in my head fully formed, often the result of some long-ago, superficial encounter. The physical model for Rosemary, for instance, was a young woman I saw in a grocery store many years before. She was very conscious of her hairdo, an asymmetrical, angular, high-fashion cut, and held her head constantly to one side as if to accentuate it. I don't know why I remember things like that, but they certainly come in handy.

Q: Which do you find easier to write: a character like Belle who is verbose and forthright or a character like Joel who is taciturn and emotionally unavailable?

AT: Oh, definitely Belle is easier; she practically wrote her own dialogue for me. Although the challenge of someone like Joel is enjoyable in a very different way.

Q: Your novels are filled with fascinating characters. Have you ever been tempted to change your protagonist in the midst of the writing process?

AT: No. I spend so much time thinking about my protagonist beforehand–just daydreaming, inventing a whole unwritten childhood, etc., for him or her–that I'm very sure where my heart lies when I begin writing.

Q: What do you think of one reviewer's comment that you "involve readers so deeply that they want to fight with the characters" in this novel?

AT: I'm honored. I'd like nothing better than for readers to believe they're actually living in my characters' world, just as I feel I'm living in it while I'm writing about it.

Q: How is Delia going handle telling Joel and especially Noah about her decision?

AT: I hate to think about that. I know it will be painful. I felt downright cruel, letting the situation develop as it did, but I was certain that was the decision she would make.

Q: Did you know from the outset how this novel would end?

AT: With this particular novel, I did. (I don't always.) I started my plot with an index card on which I'd written, years before, something like, "Woman leaves her family only to find in the end that she's just been trying to figure out how to say goodbye when they leave her." It turned out to be slightly more complicated than that, but I always did have the book's last line in my mind.

Q: When you finish a novel, do you let your characters head into an unknown future or do you find yourself finishing their story in your mind's eye?

AT: I feel a novel has come to its end when I can say, more or less, what the characters' lives will be from here on out. So once I finish writing that last page, I no longer wonder about them or even (after a little goodbye pang) give them another thought.

Q: Joel is endlessly frustrated by the misuse and vulgarization of the English language while Delia embraces the fluid and ever-evolving nature of language. Where do you stand in this debate?

AT: Every example Joel objects to, I object to, but I agree when Delia points out that some of our most vivid language is the language that evolves from everyday usage. And I profoundly disapprove of Joel's correcting poor Noah in mid-sentence–a habit that I hoped would suggest a certain authoritarian quality in Joel that parallels Sam's.

Q: Could you describe your average workday?

AT: So routinized that it's practically a ritual. I work in the morning, after some preliminary puttering that seems essential to the process. I write even if I'm not in the mood. (Sometimes my best work comes when I'm not in the mood.) And I make a point of quitting before midafternoon, when I go brain-dead.

Q: How long did it take you to write this novel? How many drafts did you write?

AT: Two years, roughly. I wrote several pages in longhand, rewrote those in longhand once more, then typed them into the computer. When I'd finished the entire book this way, I wrote the whole thing over, again in longhand–the only way I seem able to catch tiny slips or false notes. I love the rewriting process; that's when I can relax and play around, knowing that at least the bones of the story are in place.

Q: What character or plot point presented the greatest challenge to you?

AT: I had a very hard time justifying, to myself and to my readers, a mother's walking out on her children. I tried to make it less appalling by giving her children who were almost grown, but it was still difficult.

Q: Do you ever suffer from writer's block? If so, how do you get past it?

AT: Yes, from time to time. Almost invariably, I find that writer's block arises from a subconscious realization that I've taken a wrong turn–forced a character into something he wouldn't do, cheated somehow in the story line. If I don't see where I've gone wrong in a day or two, I find it helps to go back to the start of the problem and painstakingly rewrite those pages by hand–a process slow enough so that I usually discover my misstep.

Q: What other books would you recommend for a reading group discussion?

AT: A newly published book, Nancy Clark's The Hills at Home, has been making me laugh out loud. And I always think a prime selection for book clubs is Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, because readers argue so passionately for it or against it.

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