Forty-year-old Delia Grinstead, who describes herself as "pale and plain-faced and skinny, with her freckles and frizzy brown curls," is the quite deliberate tourist of this inchoate novel by the author of The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons. Convinced that she is no longer appreciated by her three children, and suspicious that her husband Sam never loved her, Delia walks out on the whole lot during a family vacation.
What triggers this spontaneous flight is an encounter in a supermarket with a young man who briefly enlists Delia to pose as his girlfriend while they shop, just to rile his estranged wife, who is also in the store with her lover.
Delia starts life anew in a small Maryland town where she works first as a secretary, then—ironically—as housekeeper for a man whose wife has walked out on him and their 12-year-old son. There's an essential unsteadiness to Ladder of Years: the Delia that Tyler sets forth at the beginning is a wisp of a woman but hardly a will-o'-the-wisp. Consequently, her sudden flight without itinerary seems contrived.
The characters in Tyler's novels tend to inhabit rooms with an insufficient supply of air. This is true in Ladder of Years but to less effect than in some of the author's earlier works. And her insights about the nature of families and the flow of life often seem fragile or warmed-over. Tyler has a strong enough sense of narrative to keep the pages turning, which is only to say that this novel is readable without quite being rewarding. (Knopf, $24)