mBOOKSm FICTION; Deep in gingerbread country

LADDER OF YEARS by Anne Tyler, Chatto £14.99
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The Independent Culture
ANNE TYLER is popular on both sides of the Atlantic for her amusing, bittersweet tales of family life coming unstuck and then getting mended. Cheery love and tolerance do the trick, a dash of optimism. While the earlier books depend upon a salty authorial honesty to reach deeply into human pain and bewilderment, this latest offering fudges the issue, comes coated in marshmallow sentimentality. American suburban life must really be falling apart if Anne Tyler is this desperate to wave the feel-good factor under our noses - the novel as sal volatile. Serial killers and sex abusers and rampaging feminists may stalk the leafy neighbourhoods, but in Tyler-country mothers are still baking gingerbread and stuffing cookies into jars and no one has heard of despair. I suppose the land that produces Bret Easton Ellis and Kathy Acker needs Anne Tyler too. Her cosy vision balances their apocalyptic bile.

We're in Baltimore, as usual. The plot is one that many contemporary women writers have felt compelled to invent, a myth of selfhood: unappreciated middle-aged women flees husband and children in order to discover her identity. Onto this basic shape of story Anne Tyler spreads her own tart, admirable prose, her own too-thick brand of sugar.

Dee Grinstead is forty. A fabulous age for a woman, you might think: in her prime, blooming a second time. But Dee is weighed down by other people's dependence on her. Perhaps to compensate, she has resolutely stayed fluffy and kittenish. Or perhaps it's her nearest and dearest who have infantilised her. She begins to ask herself: "When did sweet and cute turn into silly and inefficient?" Treated with contempt at home, she bounces back: " 'Oh listen to us!' Delia said gaily. 'Spoiling such a pretty day with disagreements!' ... Determined to start afresh, she perked all her features upward."

Dee perks away like an old-fashioned coffee-pot, dispensing syrupy balm to all around: her three selfish layabout teen-age children, her emotionally distant doctor husband, her difficult sister, her bossy and guilt-inducing mother- in-law. When she abandons this un-attractive mob on holiday, walking out on them at the beach and hitching a lift into the unknown, you want to cheer. Though you can tell that the narrator would prefer a wry chuckle: Families! Can't live with 'em! Can't live without 'em!

Dee finds lodgings and a secretarial job in a nearby small town, reinventing herself as an autonomous businesswoman who doesn't have to serve others round the clock. Her lunch-hours and evenings are free, for reading literature: no more slushy romances. Tyler deftly gives us the flavour of the small- town neighbourhood, its cafs, sidewalks, parks and stores. In affectionate close-up she displays "pockets of familiar sights: the faded red soft- drink machine outside the Gobble-Up Grocery, the chipped Fiesta ware in Bob's Antiques, the stacked bags of kibble for overweight dogs in Pet Heaven."

She's equally precise about the shabby-genteel in-terior of the boarding house: "a long, narrow room, its outside wall slanting inward under the eaves, a window at each end. A metal cot extended from beneath the front window, and a low, orange-brown bureau sat against the inside wall. There was a smell like a hornet's nest - a dry, sharp, moldering smell that came, perhaps, from the brittle-looking tan wallpaper traced with mottled roses."

The friendships into which Dee tentatively enters with other single women warn her of the fate in store if she fails to return to her family: the courageous un- married mother, the sex-mad desperate divorce fail as role models. Dee decides her love-life is over. When asked about sex, she replies: "I do miss hugs, I guess. But nowadays when I think about, um, the rest of it, I just feel sort of perplexed. I think, Why did that seem like such a big deal, once upon a time?" Not liking feeling "drab and thin and virginal, like somebody's spinster aunt fulfilling her duties", the nearest she gets to a fling is fancying the single father for whom she works as housekeeper. She keeps busy, rescuing stray cats and spreading love around the walking wounded hanging out on very corner. But family loyalty ensures her eventual return home, to steer her daughter through her wedding day. Her quest, she now understands, has been towards the goal of letting go of her children, letting them leave her.

All the anxieties and dilemmas of modern family life are ironed out in this determinedly heartwarming and upbeat morality tale. Even in fairytales, goodness doesn't triumph quite so easily. Closure arrives here too neatly, too smugly.