A Spool of Blue Thread

By Anne Tyler

Knopf | 2015 | 358 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

A Hodgepodge Life

Anne Tyler won me over years ago with her wild tales of domestic life taking place in and around Baltimore, MD.  Hard to remember now my first exposure, movie (1988) or book (1985), Accidental Tourist, but who can forget the hilarity of William Hurt doing his laundry and showering at the same time, his sister alphabetizing her canned goods, and nutty, scattered, gorgeous Geena Davis, with her dog training school, landing like an asteroid right in the midst of all these OCD types, daring to upset their ironclad rules and routines

Few describe family life better than Tyler.  She patiently reels you in with her characters that, while living a pretty normal structured existence, suddenly break out and do the unthinkable.  Sometimes the catalyst is tragedy (Saint Maybe), other times the rule of unintended consequences (Digging to America, Back When We Were Grownups), occasionally, sudden unpremeditated whim.

Unlikely characters decide to shake things up a bit (Ladder of Years), actually quite a lot, and slip into another life entirely (Morgan’s Passing)

The reader never knows what she’s going to get.  Exposure to Tyler, however, teaches one to expect some sort of upheaval in the status quo.  Somebody will do something unthinkable, ill advised, unconventional or even immoral. Life will be changed forever, for better or worse.

A Spool of Blue Thread is Pulitzer Prize winning author Tyler’s 20th novel and she’s back in familiar territory, mining the fortunes of the Whitshank family over several generations.

On the outside, the Whitshanks present themselves as a close knit clan, financially solid, running a respected family business, living in a grand old house—successful by all the measures we usually apply to others.  As Tyler skips around the four generations, she allows us to see the kinks in their armor, the disgraces, missteps, scandals and secrets

Only Tyler can reveal her characters to us, warts and all, and not risk alienating the reader.  We’re kept close in, one of the family ourselves, and share her great sympathy for the human condition and the difficulties of navigating life as an adult

The novel presents the second generation of Whitshanks most clearly: Abby and Red, childhood sweethearts now slowing down with age, and requiring the attention of their four grown children and assorted grandchildren.

Abby and Red, it turns out, are a real love match and happy to boot.  Abby has always opened their house, to the chagrin of her children, to all sorts of strangers and displaced persons and this house they’ve all returned to temporarily, built by Red’s father, Junior, seems to be the real protagonist of this family drama.  We soon glimpse underneath the veneer of the Whitshanks’ upper middle class respectability, a web of entanglements, half-truths, sorrows and shame

The novel opens with a portrayal of the wayward son, Denny, which is so relatable—don’t we all know someone like him?—that it’s hard to stop reading. Actually, we can’t help but laugh at his outrageous behavior as a teen and later an adult, yet empathize completely with his frustrated parents and siblings: Denny disappears for years at a time, starting when he’s just a teenager; he has sex and a baby; no one has an address for him; he calls in the middle of the night to say he’s gay.  Is this last just a ploy for more attention?  Any surprise that his mother loves him best?

His sisters are hard-working professionals and lead normal lives (married, children) as does his adopted brother.  Denny resents his family deeply, yet lands back in their house to help them deal with a family emergency

Flashbacks to first generation Red and his wife, literally a child from the wrong side of the tracks (as he was) illuminate the truth behind the façade.  Red, a self-made man, creates something wonderful out of nothing, builds the perfect house and business, attains respectability while never able to relax fully and enjoy the fruits of his labor, his wife or his family

Though we have multiple points of view in this novel, Abby is the focal point: good natured and loving, hopeful and as devoted to her husband and children as he is. They are the glue that holds the family together and helps them weather what life brings their way

It’s a hodgepodge life for all of us, isn’t it?  We never foresee the compromises we’ll need to make, the detours and digressions that will come along to unsettle us. How do we know which of life’s circumstances and which of our decisions will ultimately enhance our happiness and which will thwart it?  Real life has no plot, no certainties or guarantees.

I think we read Tyler for her compassion towards her characters, her humorous takes on their quirky behaviors, the relatability of the situations they find themselves in. We await the surprises which are inevitable in her fiction and do not fail to delight.  This novel may not be her best—it’s got lots of competition—but it’s a chance to spend more time in the presence of a masterful writer.

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