LADDER OF YEARS
By Anne Tyler
Knopf, 326 pp., $24
ANNE TYLER'S 1988 novel, ''Breathing Lessons,'' tells the story of Maggie and Ira Morgan of Baltimore, who climb into their elderly, gray-blue Dodge and head off for a funeral in Pennsylvania. Their very ordinary journey, however, takes an unexpected turn.
They find themselves veering off the road, figuratively, into the lives of their grown children; picking up and dusting off neglected friendships; and rediscovering a marriage frayed at the edges by the passage of time.
Tyler seems drawn to stories such as this -- stories in which a journey becomes a radical turning point for individuals and their families. In ''Breathing Lessons'' and ''Ladder of Years,'' the author's most recent novel, the main characters travel to another place. In her other books, such as ''Saint Maybe'' and ''Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,'' the journey is of the heart and mind.
''Ladder of Years,'' like ''Breathing Lessons,'' is written from the viewpoint of a woman approaching middle age who feels she is losing her family. She is troubled by her marriage to a man who, she believes, belittles her. She questions what her life would be like had she made other choices, including that of a mate. She wonders where her children have gone and who these large, sullen creatures are who have taken their place. She grapples with who she is and how she has ended up so ordinary.
The characters are finely drawn and are appealing precisely because of their Everyman qualities, and their daring to attempt to change what is unsatisfactory in their lives. Tyler tackles contemporary issues such as divorce, single parenthood, and extramarital affairs, but she does it in such a way that they take a back seat to what she sees as ultimately most important: family loyalty and love.
On the other hand, the characters in Tyler's novels are free to make choices that in real life would have serious repercussions. For example, how many women could simply walk away from their husband and children without causing any real harm, as Delia Grinstead does in ''Ladder of Years''? There is an innocency to the novels that occasionally crosses the line into naivete on the author's part.
Delia Grinstead is the mother of three nearly grown children and the wife of the only physician in Baltimore to make house calls. She never moved from her family's large, shabby house; rather, she installed her husband among her sweet-sixteen furniture. Eventually, she begins to question this existence. ''What kind of life was she leading, if every single one of last week's telephone messages could as easily be this week's?'' she wonders.
When the family heads to the Delaware shore for its annual summer vacation, Delia finds herself wandering the beach alone. She ends up, quite unintentionally, hitching a ride with a man hired to fix the leaky roof of the family's cottage. When they come to a small town called Bay Borough, Delia says, simply, ''Here is where I think I'll get out.''
All the while telling herself she is only taking a short trip, Delia finds a room to rent in a boarding house and a job as a secretary for the town attorney. Delia falls into a routine. By day, she works at the first paid job she's ever had. At night, she climbs into her cot and reads a library book by the light of a portable lamp.
At first secretly expecting her husband, Sam, to come plead for her return, but finally realizing he won't, Delia begins to develop friendships in Bay Borough. Her eventual journey back to her home and family are, in many ways, the universal search for self. She finds, in the end, that the people she has left behind have traveled further than she.
''Ladder of Years'' is fresh, funny, and poignant. It's a trip worth taking.