Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread comes with high praise and great expectations. The cover promises that it is “glorious”, “effortlessly enthralling”; inside, authors from John Updike to Nick Hornby have their glowing opinions of Tyler quoted; and then there are three pages of positive review quotes. Largely, however, this book mostly falls short. It has its messy strengths, but some sort of suburban American masterpiece it is not.
It is about four generations of family, reeling through time, living in one big old beautiful house in Baltimore. Abby Whitshank seems to be the heart of the present-moment family. Mother and grandmother, she likes to begin the story of how she and Red fell in love that summer’s day in 1959 with “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon…”. In the home that Red’s father Junior built, stories of this and previous generations are told. As in every family, there are secrets and unguarded moments, as we witness the events that in time have come to define the Whitshanks.
There is a casual style in the story telling, dropping us in and out of moments in time, all adding up to the complex layers that make a family. We open with Red on the phone to Denny – a son in and out of their lives – swearing with surprise when Denny announces he is gay. The call terminates, Red and Abby argue, the prodigal son once again causes friction in the household. This style of opening – coming straight in without context or apology – is not necessarily an issue, but later on in the book it struck me how incongruous Red’s behaviour is in this scene compared with the image drawn of him throughout the rest of the story. He is kind, gentle, good with his hands, a deaf old grandpa, an aged patriarch, definitely not his father. He is not a homophobe, nor prone to verbally violent outbursts. It’s an odd choice by Tyler.
And this leads me to a larger concern with the book. Denny, their third child and first of two sons, is an angry little boy who turns into a mean little man. A narcissist and seemingly unwitting manipulator, it is clear there is resentment between the siblings due to the undeserved attention he consumed from his parents while they were growing up. Ironically, in a sad kind of echo of the family’s dynamic, the book also seems to spend too much time on Denny. In this replication of the vacuum of time and energy he presents in the Whitshanks, it feels like the first half of this book is preoccupied with him. A brattishly problematic child, a not-very-nice guy: he is consistently unredeemable, and this is not a great character to spend time with.
Abby seems to be the centre and soul of the family and the house. A retired social worker, an old hippy, a very good person, it is her inner voice we spend a lot of time with. Even when her behavioural patterns around concern for Denny become irritatingly predictable, there is still real kindness there. The tale pivots half-way however; the book and the family’s lives are sheared away from the stories they know themselves by, and they struggle to redefine themselves in this new place.
There is a little mystery, also, as we delve into the reality behind the comforting tales we tell ourselves in a family, but generally A Spool of Blue Thread is a character study within a specific familial context. It reads not like fiction but actuality, and Tyler’s casual prose just imparts all that means onto us. “Effortlessly enthralling” it is not, but it is full of character and nuance, a little wit, a lot of traditional family muddle.