Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a departure of sorts for her. While it explores the themes of family dysfunction familiar to fans of Tyler’s work, she widens the lens in this multi-generational family saga.
The Whitshanks seem like a family everyone can admire. Red is a second-generation home builder who owns a construction company. Abby, his wife, is a retired social worker who cannot resist trying to fix everybody with whom she comes into contact. The present-day action in the novel centers on the failing health of Red and Abby, who are in their early 70s. Red suffers a heart attack and is beginning to go deaf. Abby suffers from occasional memory loss and is prone to wandering the neighborhood while her family searches for her.
Concerned about the safety of their parents, the siblings rally around them. The loyal son, Stem, who is not a Whitshank by birth, his do-gooder wife, Nora, and their children move in with the Whitshanks. When their rootless and unpredictable son, Denny, shows up to pitch in with his parents’ care, it stirs smoldering hostilites in the family.
The Whitshanks’ spacious, well-appointed home on Bouton Road serves as both a character and a metaphor for this family, in which appearances and myths mask secrets and resentments. Junior, Red’s father, built the house to his exacting standards for a wealthy family, the Brills. Through a bit of chicanery, he convinced the Brills to sell the house to him. Like a lot of Tyler’s characters, Junior learns that when he attains what he craves, it doesn’t make him happy.
This is a topic Tyler has explored throughout her body of work–the restlessness that inflicts family members as they sacrifice their ambitions and their individuality in the service of family harmony.
In this novel, a catastrophic event is the trigger that Tyler uses to send the narrative back in time. Tyler peels back the layers of the Whitshank family, first by exploring the events that led to the relationship between Red and Abby. There is a beautifully rendered scene in which Red wins Abby’s affections away from a rebellious boyfriend. There is a passage about Red’s father, Junior, who is entrapped by a precocious 13-year-old girl into a relationship that causes him to flee North Carolina, but eventually brings about their marriage. There is also a quiet battle waged between Junior and his wife over the color of a porch swing he has lovingly restored for her. These types of passages, which date all the way back to the Great Depression, are not typical in Tyler’s novel, but there is a comon thread of wishes, aspirations, pretensions, and deceit.
In the end Tyler provides a glimmer of hope that Denny might turn his life around, but, like life, the finale is ambiguous. This is what I like about Tyler’s endings, a true-to-life quality.
Ths is one of the most ambitious and satisfying of Tyler’s novels, and that is saying a lot.