Book review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

THAT’s the leafy Baltimore suburb where Anne Tyler lives and has set her latest novel. David Robinson explains why she remains his favourite writer

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Anne Tyler. Picture: Geraint Lewis/Writer Pictures


by Anne Tyler

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Chatto & Windus, 356pp, £18.99

W hen it comes to Anne Tyler, I’m a bad critic. I’ve read every word she has ever written in her 20 published books, all of which I adore (even the first four, which she doesn’t). This makes me a fan, and fans have blind spots. I’m just warning you: I’m biassed.

So I’d find it incomprehensible if you, dear reader, didn’t put down A Spool of Blue Thread without regret. Or if you had reached, say, page 280 and not started to worry, the way you do with all the very best books, that there’s only another 75 pages to go and that just isn’t enough. Because, I would argue, how could you not feel any of this? Frankly, I’d think you a bit odd, although I’d be far too polite to say.

Nobody – or nobody I have read anyway – writes about family life like Tyler. The slow compromises of parenthood, the gradual reconciliation of emotional opposites in the course of a long marriage, the way in which ambition might pall or fail to live up to expectations – this is hard territory for the novelist: many attempt to cross it but few succeed. But it is precisely where Tyler excels, finding quiet drama in ordinary life in a way that catches both its profundity and its transience. Give your own life the tiniest nudge towards something capable of being caught on a page, and this is what it would look like.

“There was,” she writes, “nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks,” the Baltimore family she follows back for three generations in her new novel. None of them famous, all with average looks, and three out of four of Red and Abby’s children living near their parents: what’s different or special about that?

Yet the Whitshanks are as extraordinary as all ordinary people are if you look hard enough.Take, for example, their huge, dreamy porch-lined house in the leafy splendour of Roland Park (think Merchiston or Bearsden, and add bigger gardens: just four miles but a social universe away from the West Baltimore projects of The Wire). Red’s dad had built every bit of it himself, back in the dark days of the Depression, when the prospect of living there, among the city’s haute bourgeoisie, would have seemed ludicrous. Yet decades after he’d moved in, the Whitshanks still didn’t fit in, what with him being basically just a jumped-up carpenter from North Carolina. One Sunday morning in 1959, when the 19-year-old Red has got the chainsaw going, one of the neighbours complains. It’s just too early, he says, but “you people” wouldn’t understand.

You people”: as Tyler noses back into the past, that’s one of the last echoes of the class prejudice the Whitshanks would face. But that day, that “beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon”, chanced to be the day that Abby realised that Red would be good boyfriend material, and so it became part of the story she would tell about her marriage, always starting out just like that, using those very words, to describe the moment the possibility of happiness clicked into place. Here she tells story once again, to her children and grandchildren::

“On the porch, everybody relaxed. Their faces grew smooth, and their hands loosened on their laps. It was so restful to be here sitting with the family, with the birds talking in the trees and the cross-cut sawing of the crickets and the dog snoring at their feet and the children calling out: ‘Safe! I’m safe!’”

But are they? Unspool the decades around that Roland Park house, and Abby and Red are still worrying about their now grown-up son Denny. He’s the one who doesn’t live nearby, who turned down the opportunity of working for Red in Whitshank Construction, who dropped out of college without telling them, and who only gets in touch intermittently: months, sometimes years, can pass before he does. Each time it’s as if he’s determined to prove his unpredictability: he’s a chef (though he never cooked at home), he’s moved out west, he’s got a Chinese-American girlfriend and is living in New York, all of a sudden he’s a substitute teacher in New Jersey …

Whenever Abby starts worrying that the Whitshanks are really just like all those other ordinary dysfunctional families, that the story begun on that beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green Sunday afternoon in 1959 isn’t pre-ordained to have a happy ending, it’s usually because of Denny. And yet when Red starts slowing down, and the rest of the family are getting anxious about him, Denny turns up on their doorstep. This time, he says, he’ll hang around. He’ll help. He’ll stay.



The prodigal son, of course, needs an older, more loyal brother for the story to make sense. Here that’s Stem, who was adopted by the Whitshanks as a toddler, his feckless mother not showing the slightest interest in raising him herself. And not only is Stem as assiduous a worker in the family firm as Red could ever have hoped for, but his beautiful evangelical Christian wife Nora can’t do enough to help too. She and Stem move in, along with their children: the Roland Park house is full once again. The only problem is that caring for Red and Abby (who is beginning to lose her mental faculties) is starting to become competitive.

That’s where, reluctantly, I’ll leave the plot, even though it’s only just started to burrow back in time. Yet this novel is fascinating because it does something unusual: it opens up the past through the present rather than the other way round. For those few foolish critics who complain that Tyler works on too narrow a canvas (like Austen, presumably) the story of Red’s parents, Junior and Lily Mae, proves them wrong. The Baltimore in which they arrived, unmarried and unwaged, is in the grip of Depression, and its bitter realities could not be spelt out more clearly: living half a week on a can of salmon, eating pickle to kill hunger, no rooms in town for less than four dollars a week and no jobs to pay even that. No buddies, and no spare dimes either.

But though Tyler’s plotting is always coherent, her work has deeper pleasures. All her novels are masterclasses in characterisation, none more so than this. Take Abby. She’s central from the start: we know the way she speaks, how she feels about Denny’s disappearance from their lives, how she gets on with everyone in the family, how she itches to get things out in the open when Red might opt for phlegmatic silences. As the story moves forward and back over the years, pulled in like a spool of thread, we find out what kind of person she is, both as a mother and as a wife. By page 63, we feel as though we know her. And yet only then, when the children are starting to worry about Abby calling the dog by the name of one of its dead predecessors, and wondering whether this means that she’s got Alzheimer’s – only then, when they, looking back, realise that she’s always been forgetful and illogical, do we get a portrait of Abby that is so focussed and brilliant that I wish I could run every word of it. I can’t: it runs for three glorious, wonderful pages.

A Spool of Blue Thread works in so many different ways. It’s brilliant at the level of the sentence (in that one I quoted, did you notice how the “cross-cut sawing of the crickets” unshowily referenced the neighbour’s complaint about the Sunday morning chainsaw?). More than that, though, is Tyler’s superb ability at showing the unfolding of character through detail: there’s a long chapter towards the end about a vehemently quiet marital row between Red’s father and mother about the colour the porch swing is painted that Chekhov himself would have been proud of. Once again, this is something that happened in the deep past that is subtly mentioned in different stories from nearer the present (such as one, right in the opening pages, about Denny’s rudeness to a customer who is joking about changing her mind on paint colours) or about Abby’s happy family dreaming (the porch swing conversation I quoted earlier).

Tyler’s eye for telling, often comic, detail remains as sharp as ever. A posh elderly aunt holds out her hand and the children give her a high five back, but miss. At Abby’s funeral Red points out that folk had “lived long enough to see aluminium frame window screens, and clip-on fake mullions and flush doors and fibreglass bathtubs”. Each year the Whitshanks spend summer at a Delaware beach house next to the same family: each year they wonder about them, though they never ever talk. One year the other family’s paterfamilias spends the time on the chaise longue on the deck; the next summer he’s not there. “They’re us, in a way,” one Whitshank daughter says, though her husband doesn’t understand.

Tyler would, though. She’s wise that way. She knows that any prodigal son’s return is always going to be way more problematic than a parable. That even loving parents can have children who turn out to disappoint them. That two people, like Red’s mother and father, can marry for all the wrong reasons and yet build a house and bring up children in it even more successfully than if they’d done everything right. Life lessons, in other words, aren’t always as clear as we would wish.

Finally, a personal note. After having worked on these pages for nearly three enjoyable decades, half of them as books editor, I’m bowing out this month. I can’t think of a better book to do so with.

I never did, in all those years, get to interview Anne Tyler. I regret that. If nothing else, I would have liked to have said thanks.