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.
A 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.
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)
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.
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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