“A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler (Alfred A. Knopf, 358 pages, $25.95)
Opening a new Anne Tyler book can be like putting on your favorite sweatshirt, warm and comfortable. Part of the sense of comfort comes from the recognition that we as readers are in the hands of a deft and accomplished writer, a writer who feels at home with her characters and obviously likes them, even the flawed, confused ones or the ones who don’t always behave well. The underlying humor she weaves into even disheartening situations reflects real life and a way to cope with events that sometimes can’t be controlled, only endured. While the prose is poised and accessible, that’s not to say the trajectory of the story is going to be predictable.
Her latest novel, set in Baltimore as are most of her works, is a domestic saga involving four generations of the Whitshank family. The book is divided into four parts, telling the family story in different time frames. The opening section tells the story of Red and Abby as empty nesters, with occasional looks back into their past. The second part relates Red and Abby’s youth and courtship. Part Three goes further back in time to Red’s father and mother. From the beginning pages, we think we know the Whitshanks but we keep encountering more layers to peel back, revealing a more complete picture of the characters.
Red and Abby’s four children all figure prominently in the story, but one intractable son, Denny, appears in the opening pages and retains a central role even when he is absent from the family and uncommunicative for long periods of time. His parents consider him the “mystery child” and he has always been the one either in trouble or causing trouble. As a teenager “his style of dress went way beyond your usual adolescent grunge: old men’s overcoats bought at flea markets; crusty, baggy tweed pants; sneakers held together with duct tape. His hair was unwashed, ropy with grease, and he gave off the smell of a musty clothes closet. He could have been a homeless person.” In adulthood he moved around the country, contacted his family only sporadically and usually in some bizarre manner, never providing them with a way to easily contact him. His parents were unsure what he did to support himself or anything about his personal relationships. Even though he was the child who caused his mother the most annoyance and worry, it is clear that he was the child she held closest in her heart.
Abby, a retired social worker, has made a habit of bringing home stray people for Thanksgiving or other family meals. Her children refer to these as Abby’s “orphan dinners” and they express resentment at having to share their family occasions with strangers who are sometimes just strange. One guest, a middle-aged recent immigrant, does nothing to ingratiate herself to her hosts. A family member attempting to make conversation inquired about the guest’s “work, her native foods, and her country’s health-care system, but Atta slammed each question to the ground and let it lie there like a dead shuttlecock.”
Tyler’s precise descriptions elevate everyday items and provide instant visualization and recognition. Abby’s bathrobe is “no-color chenille that once had been pink.” The name of a physician, Dr. Wiss, reminds Abby of her mother’s Wiss pinking shears and she recalls “the exact, clunky weight of those shears … along with the too-thick handle loop that pressed uncomfortably against the bone at the base of her thumb, and the initial balkiness as the heavy teeth began chewing into the fabric.”
Abby’s husband, Red, owns a construction company started by his father, Junior Whitshank, in the 1930s. Almost another character in the story is the family home, lovingly built by Junior. It was the kind of house you might see “pictured on a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, plain-faced and comfortable, with the Stars and Stripes, perhaps, flying out front and a lemonade stand at the curb.” One of the defining Whitshank family stories is about how the family came to live in this house on Bouton Road that Junior had built for someone else. The structure and all it represented remained a source of pride and devotion for Junior all his life. He never really finished working on it, always tinkering and improving, looking earnestly for any defect to correct. In some ways he seemed to care more about the house than he did about its occupants. The dynamics of Junior’s marriage play out most clearly concerning the house. Junior’s desire to elevate his status via this showplace of upper class perfection causes him to personally tend to every detail of the house.
At age 73, Tyler’s previous 19 novels have built her a steady following. “The Accidental Tourist” was made into a film. Two of her books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and a third, “Breathing Lessons,” won that award in 1989. To longtime Tyler fans, the themes and characters in her newest novel may seem reminiscent of previous ones, but then again, longtime Tyler fans probably won’t be bothered by that. What is there about an Anne Tyler book that makes it enjoyable? What’s so interesting about the everyday lives of ordinary middle-class people? This character-driven saga provides ample opportunity to analyze the psychological aspects of the novel if you are so inclined. Or, simply let it unwind like a spool of thread and enjoy it.
Lois Carr is a retired librarian. She lives in Wichita.