Spool of Blue Thread is Classic Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler
Knopf, 368 pages, # 978-11018744271
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After 50 years and 20 novels, you know what you'll get from Anne Tyler: Baltimore, family dynamics, realism, humor, poignancy, and big events chained to smaller ones. It's a testament to how well Tyler has honed her craft that we keep coming back instead of turning away.

Here's another reason why Tyler remains so readable: her families are plebian in the good sense of that word. Hers are not the sort of books that try our patience because we're sick of privileged brats whining about their luxury problems. Tyler's families are filled with infuriating people but because they feel like kin, we open the front door. To a great extent, her latest novel is about the many that come back versus the few that choose other paths. This time her family is the semi-functional Whitshanks, who are dead ordinary even though several of them think they are special. A Spool of Blue Thread tells a four-generation story spanning seven decades, but it's not told sequentially, and one of the major characters is the family home on Bouton Road. 

The Whitshank saga begins with Junior, a Depression-era handyman who begins a dalliance with the coquettish Linnie, unaware of the myriad reasons why he should have looked the other way. It's a toss-up who is more obsessed and obstinate, but the two eventually marry and sire two children, son Redfield and daughter Merrick. Along the way Junior builds his own construction business and one of his projects is the Bouton Road house, originally built for one of Baltimore's solid middle-class citizens. Junior, however, lusts after his own creation. To many, it's simply a well-built non-nonsense kind of house, but Junior knows how he fitted every frame, groove, and truss and is happy to play the role of informal Mr. Fixit for every problem that arises just so he can spend time within its walls. When circumstances make the home available for purchase, Junior jumps at the chance, though his wife feels the neighborhood is above their station and is probably right.

The bulk of the book, though, is spent with the next generation. Red is a chip off the old carpenter's block—both in skill and stubbornness, but he does one thing very well when he marries Abby, a social worker and founder of lost souls. They eventually have four children of their own plus a lad nicknamed Stem, whom they take in when his father—one of Red's employees—dies. Tyler plays off the truism that those who fix the problems of others can seldom do so within their own families. Their third child, Denny grows up—or more accurately fails to do so—to be an infuriating disappointment to just about everyone whose path he crosses. Maybe he's mildly autistic, or maybe he's just a loser who need his butt kicked until it meets his shoulders, but one of the things everyone except Abby and Denny himself know—including his nieces and nephews—is that you can't rely on Denny. He disappears for years at a time, only to resurface with a new partner (and eventually a daughter), a new set of problems, and tales of all the careers he begun and abandoned.   

Abby is the emotional tongue and groove of Whitshank generations two through four, but when dementia begins to claim her and Red's health begin to fade, the children have to come up with a plan. Denny reappears as the anti-Prodigal Son to be their caretaker—an absurdity complicated by the fact that Stem has already moved in with his children and his wife, Nora, who is a serious—as in very serious–Baptist. If you think this is the most dysfunctional thing about the Whitshanks, you're not even in the ballpark. Flashback narratives unspool various family dramas in ways that make the Whitshanks seem like Ozzie and Harriet at one moment and the Adams Family the next.

Spool of Blue Threads is a page-turner that seems much shorter than 368 pages. I wouldn't call it a profound book, but it's clever in places, including its title—whose secret isn't revealed until near the end—and in its references to color. Of that I will say only that blue is generally associated with loyalty, wisdom, and tranquility; in the book it generally presages something quite different. So let's just call this one what it is: a very good Anne Tyler book. And sometimes that's enough.

Rob Weir

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