There is usually a reassuring feeling of familiarity when you open a book by Anne Tyler; like catching up with an old friend you haven’t seen for a while. Everything is familiar but not the same. At the heart of A Spool of Blue Thread, her 20th novel, are the Whitshanks. Red is the head of a successful Baltimore construction company and he and his wife Abby, a former social worker, still live in the elegant house that his father, Junior, built almost 50 years before. Even they would concede that there is nothing remarkable about the family. This is no sweeping saga. Tyler’s focus, and where she consistently excels, is on the drama that lies within the ordinary everyday events and exchanges between the characters.
As three of their children, Amanda, Jennie and Stem pass from school to forge marriages and careers of their own, Denny, the troubled and troublesome one, consistently commandeers the majority of the parent’s attention, even if only by his long absences. Always the elephant in the room.
Now Abby and Red are getting on a bit and, the children believe, are unable to cope alone in the big house. After a compromise is reached by Amanda, Jennie and Stem, with the inevitable uneven levels of sacrifice between the siblings and the parents, Denny reappears to create chaos and disharmony.
As the book progresses Tyler peels back layers of the family’s history that and is not afraid to throw in some startling revelations but does it so calmly and in such a matter of fact manner that it seems less to shock the reader but more to provide context. My main quibble was the leap back to a sizeable chunk of Junior’s story. Yes, an added layer, but I didn’t want to stay there, I wanted to stay with Abby and Red and the functioning disfunctionals that is the family.
Tyler has on occasions been criticized for being too repetitive in only representing a middle class viewpoint. Certainly you see none of the gritty side of Baltimore as portrayed in the hit The Wire TV series which was filmed close to where she lives. But that has never been her intent, and certainly not what her millions of fans appear to be seeking. In an interview in 2013 Tyler appeared to say that this would be her last book. A later “clarification” didn’t really help much. We can but wait and see.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is published by Chatto & Windus. Other books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Beginner’s Goodbye.