The smell of clean linen

LADDER OF DREAMS Anne Tyler Chatto & Windus pounds 14.99

Anne Tyler is so good she makes you wish she were even better. In a remarkable series of novels (this is the 13th) she has paced out the domestic scenery of Baltimore with an alert tenderness that has few parallels. Some might say that her abiding preoccupation with the mating dance of the bourgeoisie is unprofound, but this holds only if you consider such matters as love, marriage, desire, dejection and the relations between women, men and children mundane.

In outline, her books can sound like a soapy sequence of life's little ups and downs, but the details - the smell of a child's scalp, the sequins of light on the ocean - feel first-hand and fresh. And the narrator's hand is so unaffected and sure of itself you wouldn't be surprised if the phone rang and characters from the text started asking you what on earth they were supposed to wear to the charity gala, and can you believe what Martha had the cheek to say over the pot roast, and what do you mean I had it coming? If she has a theme it is that families are fate. In book after book we see people (men as well as women) tangling with dreams of better things before succumbing to the gravity of their own lives. It is a ripe vision - not exactly happy, but not exactly sad; at the top of every ladder lies a snake, waiting to dump you back where you came from. The blurb speaks of the triumph of hope over experience, but the opposite is true: experience wins out every time.

Delia is your usual taken-for-granted wife, just turned 40, with a tight, critical husband and greedy teenagers. One day she wanders along a beach and is astonished to find that she has no intention of turning back. She hitches a ride to a nearby town, rents a room and starts from scratch. Long before she does, we become aware that in changing everything she has changed nothing. She takes a job as live-in help to a man whose wife has left and becomes, everywhere but in the bedroom, a housewife again, full of cheering recipes and homely ways to keep the family chugging along. She is wounded by her husband's failure to run after her, distraught and pleading, and makes no comparison with her employer and his son, who are utterly devastated to have been abandoned. It is up to us to see that if her family had come begging, it would only have given her something solid to flee from.

In one sense she is Bovary set in Baltimore, a woman struggling to burst out of surroundings that lack passion. Like Emma, she reads romantic blockbusters which her husband (typical!) calls "trashy". Unlike her, she is free to move out, get a job and strike up with someone new. No one seems to care - and that's the problem. Delia succeeds in creating a new life; new job, new man, even a new little boy to mother. She is desperate to feel wanted, rather than merely needed, but the past, in absentia, comes to seem increasingly desirable, and keeps tugging her back.

It is a story carefully subversive of grand emotions, and the details agree. The heroine is actually named Cordelia, but it is fitting that she is now plain Delia, with the Cor taken out; these bland times inevitably domesticate the tragic note (her husband calls her Dee). And the prevailing imagery is very kitchen sink; the first sentence contains a spring day that smells "like clean linen"; and when Delia is caught by a wave while swimming, she churns underwater "like a load of laundry". As the book proceeds, the heroine's literary taste shifts from romance to novels that are more "true to life - about poor people in Maine." She even starts shedding her sense of life as a fairytale; her husband had picked her (her! the quiet one!) out of a three sister line-up with princely ceremony (and he doesn't even remember it - the rat).

It is not possible to regret Tyler's reflex to flinch away from anything sensational, a proper and welcome one. But though you read with a vague feeling of elation at the constant perceptiveness and charm, you end with an unappeased desire for something to burst. Tyler vividly pictures the forlorn insufficiency of Delia's family life and makes us long for her to go all the way. So it is hard to be gladdened by her east-west-home's- best urge to return. Similarly, she is enraged by her husband's patronising assumption that she just needs a break to get away and clear her head; so it is depressing for us when he turns out to have been right. We can't help wanting something to fracture Delia's self-absorption; she resents her family's lack of love for her, but does not investigate her own lack of love for them - after all, she's the one who has an affair with a bloke she meets in a supermarket, she's the one who walks down the beach and never returns, pausing only to make sure the cat's all right. There is an uneasy sense that even drastic actions do not have consequences. Hearts get bruised, but don't break; neither do they truly lift. Delia leaves one home, moves into another, and slips back into her old life like someone who has found a favourite jumper under the sofa. It stinks a bit, and a few threads hang loose, but what the hell, it saves buying a new one.

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