I’ve had Anne Tyler on my list to read for years. One of the American greats, I’ve heard her praised for her spare, yet warm and funny portrayals of family life, of secrets and stories and shared history. If this is what I’ve been missing, it seems I have a backlist to explore.
A Spool of Blue Thread follows the Whitshank family through four generations, from Junior and Linnie Mae Whitshank, who moved to Baltimore in the 1920s, their children Merrick and Red, Red and his wife Abby, their own four children and their various grandchildren. Much of it takes place in the beautiful Baltimore house that Junior painstakingly built for another family, and then bided his time until he was able to move in – one of the two main family stories that is passed down. The second one, delivered immediately afterwards, of Merrick’s marriage, casts a slightly darker light on Junior’s quest for perfection.
Abby and Red are now in their seventies, and the familiar question of caring for them has arisen. A decision is made, to Red and Abby’s sorrow, and which puts the prodigal son Denny’s nose out of joint. Denny is the wayward one, the son who ate up all of Red and Abby’s attention as a child, much to his siblings’ enduring resentment, and yet for whom nothing ever seemed quite enough.
It’s quite hard to review A Spool of Blue Thread. A quietly gripping family saga, its strengths lie in its graceful writing, and its perceptive yet comforting exploration of family life. It’s enthralling without being obviously so. Anne Tyler is prone to authorial comment, which brings the Whitshank family out beyond the pages – in the second chapter, she describes them as being ‘like most families, they believed they were special.’ It’s a comment which converts warmth, wit as well as fondness for her characters, as well as giving the reader a nudge, as though to warn us against judging the characters too harshly. Although they can exasperate, it’s hard not to empathise with them, even in Denny’s most irritating moments. The mixed joy of spending time with relatives is extremely well-captured, from the gentle domesticity in which everyone finds their well-trod place at family gatherings, but also the claustrophobia, the feeling of regressing to childhood, and the need to get away from them.
But it’s not an uneventful book – it’s just that the twists are delivered so calmly, that you almost feel you knew all along that one of the Whitshank children was adopted in slightly shady circumstances, that the love story the book hinges on was not all it seemed. Though Junior’s patience in waiting for his turn to move into the dream house he built comes across as ‘the Whitshank way’, it is gradually exposed as part of his desire to leave his roots behind, and reveals a deeply controlling side to him.
I finished A Spool of Blue Thread feeling that it slightly disproves Tolstoy’s well-known maxim that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Whitshanks aren’t unhappy. They’re nice, normal, funny, tragic, silly people doing their best by each other – not always succeeding, but trying. Some are more sympathetic than others, but the writing effortlessly sucks you in, and you care as much for this nice normal family as you would for anyone facing various degrees of unhappiness.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is out now, published by Vintage.