Tag Archives: Baltimore

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Here is another writer who takes everyday difficulties seriously. (The ‘other’ is Kent Haruf, recently reviewed on the blog). Typically her main character is socially inept in some way, but has carved out a life in which they manage. Her novels are concerned with what happens when their world is challenged. Who can forget Macon in The Accidental Tourist, trying to deal with grief and being forced into a wider set of social interactions? Or his family of grown up siblings who store their groceries alphabetically: elbow macaroni belonging in a different place on the shelf to noodles or ordinary macaroni! Wonderful!

She is kind to her characters, affectionate even while providing a little amusement at their expense. This is as true for Micah Mortimer as it is for Macon Leary.

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Micah Mortimer lives in Baltimore, working as a janitor and he also provides computer services. He lives alone having had a small number of failed relationships. He is a man of routine, but also of kindness, but with no insight into the impression he makes on others. The title refers to what he glimpses every day on his daily run, which quickly resolves into a fire hydrant. The novel begins when his latest woman friend, Cass, tells him that she may be made homeless. She gives up on him when his response is not what she wanted.

Anne Tyler is at her most perceptive when she observes the young man who turns up after an argument at home. Brink claims, even hopes, that Micah might be his father as his mother was Micah’s first girlfriend. The youth seems to have no plans beyond finding Micah, who is able to say categorically that he is not Brink’s father. Her description of this awkward youth is very apt and illustrates his inability to deal with the problems he has caused.

Meanwhile Micah’s large family are dismayed at Cass’s departure. He also finds it hard to understand why she left. And he is not sure what to do about Brink when the boy first runs away and then returns. But he does the right thing and manages to reunite Brink with his mother and stepfather. The occasion helps him to gain some insight into how other people see him when his ex-girlfriend explains a thing or two.

Between scenes that move the plot on we follow Micah to his various jobs, see other isolated and incompetent people. There are some rich cameos and typical computer problems which allows us to see that Micah is a thoughtful man and a good problem-solver when is dealing with technical things. But personal problems seem beyond him until he helps resolve Brink’s problems and going in search of Cass.

Micah makes it through with affectionate support from his family and some understanding he gains from the episode with Brink.  Life goes on. Its upsets are not great. Her main characters have some kind of flaw which enables one to view them sympathetically. In fact one may even identify a little with these people.

Anne Tyler’s novels on my bookshelves

Related posts

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, published in 2020. I read the paperback from Vintage 178pp

Longlisted for Booker Prize 2020

4 Comments

Filed under Books, 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’

 

To receive email about future notifications please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews