A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
25th Feb 2015
“The Whitshanks weren’t a melodramatic family,” the gently sardonic narrator assures readers early on. Rather, they are an entirely ordinary American family in both their complications and their achievements.
Matriarch Abby Whitshank is a social worker with a penchant for attracting “orphans” – refugees and eccentrics beyond the pale of society. Her husband Red runs a respected family construction firm. They are pillars of their Baltimore neighbourhood.
Their four children, however, are a different story. Denny impregnates a girl while in high school, drops out of college, and adopts a vagrant lifestyle. He flits between jobs and cities, never putting down roots; his parents can lose track of him for years at a time.
It seems like the family upheaval is finally settling down when Abby, now 72, starts disappearing and acting absent-minded. Meanwhile Red, 74, has had a minor heart attack. Concerned about their parents living alone, sons Denny and Stem move in.
Amid a welter of minor offences, the kids know it’s time to put the house up for sale and find a modest apartment to replace it. A family funeral sparks a wave of nostalgia for two defining family stories, and as the novel progresses backwards in time, we finally hear these in full.
First comes the story of how Abby fell in love with Red; it’s tied up with the infamous incident of Red’s sister Merrick stealing her best friend’s rich fiancé.
Abby always prefaces the memory with “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning.” She’d gone over to see her friend’s wedding preparations, and found that Red was avoiding family drama by counting tree rings. Appreciating his peaceful tack, she fell in love.
The most central story of all, though, is of how Red’s father Junior got his dream house. He’d reluctantly married Linnie Mae, a much younger girl from back home, and for years they struggled to make ends meet.
Junior was a dutiful carpenter, and his break finally came when he built his perfect home – for the Brill family. And then, oddly enough, the Brills had a burglary scare and decided they couldn’t live there; the house was his.
This is the same Baltimore home Abby and Red inherited, and while it is a symbol of achievement and togetherness, it is also a reminder that nothing ends perfectly: for as long as he was alive, Junior couldn’t stop tinkering with the house, desperate to make it just right.
What do these foundational stories say about the Whitshanks? Primarily, they reveal an insecure, nouveau riche family. Ambition and envy are endemic vices, inevitably leading to disappointment in this fable-like moral set-up. What do these foundational stories say about the Whitshanks? Primarily, they reveal an insecure, nouveau riche family. Ambition and envy are endemic vices, inevitably leading to disappointment in this fable-like moral set-up. For instance, Linnie Mae had their porch swing painted just the right shade of Swedish blue, but Junior objected and wouldn’t let it stand.
Tyler’s novels are always wry and observant, but this perhaps isn’t one of her best. Meandering and somewhat melancholy, it doesn’t go anywhere in particular.
The opening scene creates a huge plot hole, never addressed, and the backwards chronology means you come to care about the present dilemmas faced by Abby, Red and their children, only to have them diminish in importance as the novel moves deeper into the past.
Still, this is a pleasant ramble, and it asks important questions about family inheritance, assumptions of social class, and the stories we tell ourselves.