The characters in “A Spool of Blue Thread” look like the same Baltimore family members we’ve socialized with for 50 years in Anne Tyler’s fiction. In fact, everything about her new novel — from its needlepointed title to its arthritic plot — sounds worn-out.
So how can it be so wonderful? The funky meals, the wacky professions, the distracted mothers and the lost children — they’re all here. But complaining that Tyler’s novels are redundant is like whining that Shakespeare’s sonnets are always 14 lines long. Somehow, what’s familiar seems transcended in these pages, infused with freshness and surprise — evidence, once again, that Tyler remains among the best chroniclers of family life this country has ever produced.
“There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks,” she writes. “But like most families, they imagined they were special. . . . They made a little too much of the family quirks.” We might, of course, mutter the same comment about Tyler, who’s been making a little too much of the family quirks since 1964. But for generations, readers have caught echoes of their own parents and siblings in her eccentric characters. The tightly wound humor and tragedy of her stories, delivered in prose that never draws attention to its graceful wit, demonstrate that every unremarkable family, wrapped in proud insularity, is special.
“A Spool of Blue Thread” introduces us to Red and Abby Whitshank, the parents of three successful, happily married children who have dutifully remained in their parents’ orbit. But it’s Denny, their fourth child, the best-looking one, who absorbs the bulk of their concern. A difficult teen, he found Abby intolerably embarrassing and everyone else boring. He got a girl pregnant, then later announced he was gay — no, scratch that: not gay. Over the years he’s shocked his parents with his dissipated life and especially with his apparent disregard for them. “What other middle-class American teenager lived the way he did,” Red and Abby think, “flitting around the country like a vagrant, completely out of his parents’ control, getting in touch just sporadically and neglecting whenever possible to give them any means of getting in touch with him?” Their “mystery child” is a chef, then a software engineer; he’s married, then he’s separated — who knows?
Tyler’s sentiments are perfectly calibrated to trace the desperation of these parents, pinging between annoyance and concern. For years, Denny has practiced a kind of passive blackmail, withholding himself for so long and so completely that when he graces the family at random moments, they’re deferential and gentle, cowed by his silences. During one pleasant visit, Red makes the mistake of asking, “Do you have a job?” and Denny vanished for three years. Is there a family who doesn’t suffer such a member, a loved one who makes you ashamed of how much you miss him and how little he needs you? Tyler knows exactly how affection weakens even our most determined resentment. She knows what mysteries we are to each other.
The plot revolves around another common family crisis: At 72, Abby begins experiencing episodes — erratic moments of distraction during which she sometimes wanders away from the house. And then Red has a mild heart attack. Their children rally. The youngest son moves into the house with his wife and three boys. But then — surprise — Denny arrives and announces that he’ll take care of everything. It’s an offer that sounds entirely sincere and completely unreliable.
Suddenly, the Whitshank house — too empty for so long — is too full, bursting with children and spouses and grandchildren, a cacophonous orchestra of emotional needs, buried resentments and conflicting best intentions, not to mention disagreements about how dinner should be cooked. (No one sets a better fictional table than Tyler, and there’s a classic meal in this novel.)
It’s a large group, but she conducts these characters so nimbly that they never dissolve in the noise. An extended scene on a leisurely Sunday afternoon in the back yard is some of the most lovely and loving writing Tyler has ever done. And when you consider what music she can play with this apparently static, muted material, “The Spool of Blue Thread” seems like an act of literary enchantment.
Yet we also get a clear sense of the strains building even as Abby and Red enjoy hugging their family under one roof again. And that’s not just any roof. Tyler understands the way people can feel rooted to property. The Whitshanks are “one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness,” but much of that group identity is invested in their carefully maintained house. Red’s father built it, clung to it and passed it along to Red as a varnished emblem of the family’s social and financial success.
Indeed, what gives “A Spool of Blue Thread” such unexpected weight is its delineation of the provenance of this family home. Late in the novel, the narrative suddenly slips back to show Abby and Red before they were married, and then it fades back further still to tell the tragicomic story of Red’s mismatched parents. Among the several delights of this book is how effectively Tyler captures these earlier eras. She conveys their antique ideals about sex and marriage and what it means to be a success at a time when poverty sent people careening out into the world with nothing. The Whitshanks will eventually paper over their petty origins and construct a mythos as pleasant and solid as their home, but in the telescope of Tyler’s narrative, we can see the interplay of accident and willfulness, love and envy that created these complicated people who pretend they have no secrets.
From a different author, this domestic muckraking would be disillusioning and satiric, a searing exposure of a happy family’s corrupt origins. But Tyler never mocks her characters. Even when she’s having fun with their weird peculiarities and transparent short-sightedness, she’s usually a benevolent goddess. And yet it’s her surprising brutality that kills off any germs of sentimentality in her work. Her sorrow is never unbearable — but it’s never absent, either.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.