A Spool of Blue Thread By Anne Tyler
Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Anne Tyler has been compared to Eudora Welty and Jane Austen for her descriptions of odd characters and the ordinary events that occur within families. Her fans will find much to celebrate in A Spool of Blue Thread.
Best-selling author Anne Tyler’s 20th novel is set in the city of Baltimore, the locale for many of her previous books. It could take place in almost any city in America.
The story centers on the middle class Whitshank family and many of the big and small events that occur over the decades within the walls of their hand-crafted house. Built in the 1930s by family patriarch Junior Whitshank, the house has been passed down to his son and daughter-in-law, Red and Abby. It is both a home for the family and a symbol of their identity.
“There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks,” writes Tyler. None of them was famous, exceptionally intelligent or good looking, yet they think they are part of a special family. This sense of pride goes back to Junior, who worked his way out of poverty to head his own construction business and own a custom-designed house with an enviable front porch in an upscale neighborhood. Junior was originally commissioned to design and build the house for a client, but fell in love with it during construction and tricked the homeowner into selling it to him.
Junior is the type of quirky, one-of-a-kind character that shows up throughout Tyler’s work. Junior’s wife, Linnie Mae, is another. As a teenager, she was determined to be Junior’s bride and ran away from home to follow him hundreds of miles to Baltimore after he left their small hometown in the South. The couple eventually married and raised two children, but Junior secretly harbored feelings of being roped into the arrangement.
Once Junior had established his family in his fine new house, he was determined to keep up with the neighbors. He raised daughter Merrick to be socially ambitious, and she followed his lead and married a wealthy man. Red was content to work alongside Junior and eventually inherit the business and the house. The story moves to the 1950s to describe how Red fell in love with Abby, a well-meaning do-gooder who often ends up making situations worse with her meddling. The stories of how Junior and Linnie and then Red and Abby got together are part of the family mythology, stories that have been told and retold until the reality has been forgotten.
In the present day, Red and Abby are empty nesters in their 70s with four adult children. Like many families, the Whitshanks have some serious relationship problems that no one wants to talk about. “They had a talent for pretending that everything was fine…Maybe it was just further truth that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.” Three of the Whitshank children have grown to be responsible adults, but oldest son Denny is the black sheep of the family, in and out of jobs and unable to settle down. He had been a happy child. his mother’s favorite, until a younger boy, Stem, was adopted into the family. Denny grew up troubled and resentful, while Stem became more of a true son to Red than his real son, poised to take over the family construction business. Abby and Red have spent years worrying about Denny, and the other children have always resented it.
As time passes and another generation fades away, the once-sturdy house is beginning to show signs of its age. Red and Abby have health issues and their children are worried, especially about Abby’s episodes of forgetfulness. Abby has always been the keeper of secrets in the family, including the identity of Stem’s biological mother. Now it seems that those secrets may be lost as she loses many of her memories.
Stem and his family move back home to help make repairs and keep an eye on Abby, who resents the presence of Stem’s lovely and capable wife, Nora. Then Denny drops in for one of his occasional visits, bringing more friction into the house. Abby welcomes Denny like the prodigal son and a battle for control of the family ensues among Denny, Stem and their sisters Amanda and Jeannie. Despite her failing memory, Abby is determined to protect the happiness of the Whitshank family. Like many of Tyler’s characters, she yearns for the unattainable. Fate intercedes in the form of a sudden tragedy and the future of the house seems to be in the balance, as well as the family identity. They must learn to live with changes that are beyond their control.
Anne Tyler is a master at describing the secrets and sorrows of middle-class American families and allowing her readers to see the world from the perspective of even her quirkiest characters. Now in her 70s, she has hinted that A Spool of Blue Thread could be her last novel. If you’ve never picked up this thoughtful writer, this book is a wonderful place to start. HLM