Tag Archives: Lisa Allardice

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (again)

Anne Tyler’s novel A Spool of Blue Thread was hotly tipped to win the Man Booker Prize 2015. In the event the panel chose A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. He is young and relatively unknown while Anne Tyler’s book is her 20th and (she says) her last. It would have been fitting to see her win the prestigious prize, especially as it’s always good to see women winning. But it is also good to see a newcomer’s talents being recognized and to enjoy the fuss over novels that the award generates.

And I would also say that A Spool of Blue Thread is not Anne Tyler’s very best novel. While I have gained huge pleasure from all her books for me it is The Accidental Tourist. Last month I reread it for one of my reading groups and remembered all over again its many delights.

208 Acc T cover

Here is my revised review, originally posted in April 2013.

The Story of The Accidental Tourist

Macon Leary and his wife Sarah are trying to come to terms with the random murder of their teenage son. The novel starts as they return early from a holiday at the beach to their home in Baltimore. Anne Tyler describes how each sits and what each wears. ‘They might have been returning from two entirely different trips,’ she says. Such observations are one of the delights of reading Anne Tyler.

Sarah leaves Macon who does not manage without her, despite devising all kinds of contraptions – like doing the washing in the shower – to make his life easier. After breaking his leg in a self-induced accident, he returns to his childhood home, where his sister and brothers also live.

Macon is rescued by Muriel, a dog trainer. Her life is chaotic, but she is open, generous, logical in her own way, and, as several people observe to Macon, unlikely. People will wonder about such an ill-matched couple, his ex-wife tells him.

He felt a mild stirring of interest; he saw now how such couples evolved. They were not, as he’d always supposed, the result of some ludicrous lack of perception, but had come together for reasons that the rest of the world would never guess.

As readers, we know that Muriel’s efforts, her persistence, her kindness are just what he needs, and by the end of the book, so does he. And in turn he will ground her.

Macon

Macon (pronounced May-con) is one of Anne Tyler’s ‘forlorn bunch’ as she calls her male protagonists. He is an antidote to the usual heroes of Great American Novels. We can’t help sympathising with the hapless Macon as he is assailed by grief, the departure of his wife, a broken leg, a badly behaved dog and a dog trainer.

Macon’s employment is as unsuitable as the rest of his life. He writes a series of guides for people forced to travel on business called Accidental Tourist in London, Paris, …

Macon hated travel. He careened through foreign territories on a desperate kind of blitz – squinching his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life, he sometimes imagined – and then settled back home with a sigh of relief to produce his chunky, passport-sized paperbacks.

I love the word ‘squinching’. This is pretty much his way of careening through life, the separation from his wife, the increasingly difficult behaviour of his dog, his ridiculous name and his inability to deal with his losses.

The Leary Family

Families are a constant theme in Anne Tyler’s novels because, she says, people are forced together in them and she wants to know ‘how they grate along’. That theme can run and run. Your family probably has some rituals, sayings and episodes that you don’t boast about.

The Leary family have some interesting patterns of behaviour; they get lost whenever they venture into the streets of Baltimore, they never answer the phone and their favourite food is baked potatoes. One of the things that needs fixing in the novel is the Leary family’s dependence on each other and the bizarre rituals they have developed to cope with the external world. The three brothers, including Macon, and their sister Rose, all get lost whenever the venture out into Baltimore. They get lost in every respect until their lives are smoothed by opening to other people, especially Muriel.

Perhaps we all have rituals like the Leary family. Here is a delightful detail about order in Rose’s kitchen.

Rose stood on a stepstool in front of a towering glass-fronted cupboard, accepting groceries that Charles and Porter handed up to her. “Now I need the n’s, anything starting with n,” she was saying.

“How about these noodles?” Porter asked. “N for noodles? P for pasta?”

E for elbow macaroni. You might have passed those up earlier, Porter.”

Anne Tyler

208 A TylerIn the very few interviews that she has agreed to, Anne Tyler asserts that she writes, not what she knows, but to see what it’s like to be inside someone else’s life. She asks the question, ‘what does it feel like to be this kind of someone?’ (Read Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview and listen to Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 Front Row interview).

And she does it gently, wittily, wryly, in all her novels. She says that she has to like her characters, and even when they are behaving in absurd ways, the reader recognises something of themselves, their fears or foibles: perhaps you don’t alphabetise your kitchen stores, but people do organise stuff in their homes in very particular ways (see Bookword post on arranging books for example). Macon’s strategies for coping with the exigencies of travel are only a little more idiosyncratic than yours or mine.

Is she a women’s writer? The question seems to imply she’s a lightweight, and contains an accusation that she is sentimental, homely, homespun. It has been suggested that she is anti-men. Of course she has many male admirers, including John Updike. And it is true that her male characters, including Macon, are quirky. But they are not wimps, unpleasant, grasping or self-promoting. And Anne Tyler herself claims that growing up with a loving father and brothers and having had a good marriage, her experiences of men have been good. ‘Isn’t everybody quirky? If you look closely at anybody you’ll find impediments, women and men both.’

Another reason to reread The Accidental Tourist (1985) is that it seems to me to be an exception to the disappointment of film adaptations. Starring William Hurt and Geena Davis, this film captured Macon’s maladroitness as it is slowly smoothed out by Muriel’s openheartedness.

I will be sorry if she never writes another novel but happy to explore her oeuvre again. One of the things I enjoy about her novels is how her characters are engaged in managing the challenges of ordinary lives, and how she continually challenges stereotypes, especially of the adult American male.

Related posts

I reviewed A Spool of Blue Thread on Bookword in July 2015.

Natasha Hinde’s interview in July 2015 in the Huffington Post: ‘Completely Without Inspiration’

 

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler published in 1985 by Penguin Random House 355pp

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Reading Anne Tyler’s novels gives me the same feeling as when I hear Knoxville, Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber. Both are very American and strongly evocative of ordinary urban life. As with Barber’s piece it is easy to get into a novel by Anne Tyler, but as you progress you are challenged. She presents you with surprises and with people acting like real people – not like stereotyped heroes and heroines. They have foibles, grief, whims, traits that make them recognisable and interesting.

186 Spool coverA Spool of Blue Thread is Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel and continues her exploration of families. She has said she wants to know ‘how they grate along’ because people are forced together in families. In this novel she explores how families define themselves, creating their versions of themselves and how this changes over time.

The story

Set in Baltimore again, A Spool of Blue Thread follows the Whitshanks and their four children. We meet Red (a builder) and Abby (a social worker and former hippy) in 1994 and follow them into old age where their children must respond to their ageing. The story shifts in Part Two to focus on the previous generation of Whitshanks and how they came to Baltimore. It emerges that the origins of both Junior and Linnie are obscured from their children and grandchildren. It is not clear whether they were even married.

In A Spool of Blue Thread Abby is a central figure. She is prone to invite lame ducks to a meal and forget about the invitation. She is generous and has opened her family to non-blood relatives.

Central to the story is the house that Junior Whitshank built and bought off its first owner, then passed to Red, becoming the home of the second generation.

Junior got his house, but it didn’t seem to make him as happy as you might expect, and he had often been seen contemplating it with a puzzled, forlorn sort of look on his face. He spent the rest of his life fidgeting with it, altering it, adding closets, resetting flagstones, as if he hoped that achieving the perfect abode would finally open the hearts of those neighbors who never acknowledged him. Neighbors whom he didn’t even like. (57)

The story ends as the house is emptied and the third generation move away from its orbit.

Why read A Spool of Blue Thread?

In every novel Anne Tyler creates characters of great charm and frustration. Who can forget the flawed Macon in The Accidental Tourist. He writes travel books and hates travel. His family store their groceries alphabetically. These are not romantic heroes and heroines and yet they love, suffer and make their lives as all of us do.

Anne Tyler has said that she writes, not what she knows, but to see what it’s like to be inside someone else’s life. She asks the question, ‘what does it feel like to be this kind of someone?’ (Read Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview and listen to Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 Front Row interview).

The novel explores how families shape themselves. Here are some of the ways in which the Whitshanks do it:

  • Through their responses to the wayward child, Denny, who sabotages much family activity, absents himself from the family, flits back occasionally, tells them nothing of his life.
  • The family’s retold two myths – how the house came to be in the possession of the Whitshanks and how Red’s sister’s dishonestly and manipulatively campaigned to marry a rich man.
  • What the members of the family tell each other and what they withhold.
  • How the family respond to ageing parents, and the assumptions they make about their need for care and about who should do this and how.
  • The resentful relationships between the siblings and how these are only revealed in crises.
  • How the family’s rituals define them, for example their annual holiday at the Beach and Christmas.
  • How they cope and don’t cope when they are all squashed together in the house.
  • How they respond to the death of one of the family.

Amanda the lawyer gives her brother Denny a piece of her mind on one occasion, and we learn a truth about this wayward son. She spoke on the phone to him, in front of their mother, Abby.

“But do you know something, Denny? Don’t count on me to take you in, because I’m angry, I’m angry at you for leading us on such a song and dance all these years, not just these last few years but all the years, skipping all those holidays and staying away from the beach trips and missing Mom and Dad’s thirtieth anniversary and thirty-fifth and Jeannine’s baby and not attending my wedding that time or even sending a card or calling to wish me well. But most of all, Denny, most of all: I will never forgive you for consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.”

She stopped speaking. Denny said something.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m fine. How have you been?” (32-33)

The scene shifts and the next paragraph beings: So Denny came home. The humour, letting us down after one of the most emotional scenes, and the delivery of the home truth to Abby is typical of Anne Tyler’s writing, and of how she shows the relationships in this family.

There is no great denouement although Denny appears to be making a bid for a better life in the final scenes. We have been privileged to witness a family, any family, make its way through difficult times, from the Depression to the present day, and how each family member plays a part in shaping and defining the family while also being constrained by the collective ideas they hold.

And the reader has witnessed this through the eyes of a writer with great charm and humour and a gift for the detail. There is a link to Knoxville in the prominent role of the porch seat in the novel and which you can hear swinging gently at the opening of Barber’s piece.

Reading Anne Tyler

I have read (or reread) a novel by Anne Tyler every two years, my reading record shows.

Digging to America (2006)
Noah’s Compass
(2009)
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012)
The Accidental Tourist (1985)

Anne Tyler's novels on my bookshelves

Anne Tyler’s novels on my bookshelves

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (2015) Chatto & Windus 358 pp

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

My copy was a gift from Kim, through her blog Reading Matters. Many thanks to Kim, I enjoyed it as I knew I would! The link takes you to her review.

 

Related posts:

An Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Shortlisted for Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2015

Natasha Hinde’s interview in July 2015 in the Huffington Post: ‘Completely Without Inspiration’

 

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews