1:04 AM 9th September 2023
Family Is Not An Important Thing. It’s Everything : A Spool Of Blue Thread By Anne Tyler
I remember reading Breathing Lessons
by Anne Tyler a year or so ago and reviewing it in these pages. (Actually, I looked it up and Covid is playing time tricks on me again - it was December, 2020!). I loved the ordinariness of it and indeed finished my review by saying: ‘There is no grand sweeping statement in this novel; it depicts normality with humour and sensitivity, creating something we can all recognise’. So, when another Anne Tyler found its way onto the bedside pile, it didn’t stay there for long. I read recently that Anne Tyler wishes she could buy up all the copies of her first four novels so she could destroy them. Fortunately, A Spool of Blue Thread
, which follows four generations of the Whitshank family, is her twentieth and so does not fall into that category and it didn’t take me long to read.
They are believable and ‘like most people - insufferable but likable’; she could be writing about anyone’s family and that is how most characters are in this book.
This is not a family saga of the usual kind; rather than turbulent drama and infamy, the reader is, instead, led gently by the hand through the family history, at first through the eyes of Abby, a retired social worker, wife of Red, mother to the ambitious and strong-minded Amanda, to hardworking Jeannie, to the rebellious prodigal, Denny and to all intents and purposes, Stem. She is also, of course, grandmother to her offsprings’ offspring. The narrative moves back and forth in time, highlighting relationships and the shared idiosyncrasies of generations of the same family: ‘There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks but like most families, they imagined they were special. . . . They made a little too much of the family quirks.’ Could the same not be said of most of us?
Tyler has the ability to create characters with whom you want to engage because they are not threatening or particularly belligerent, but instead possess a gentle normality. She breathes life into them. They are believable and ‘like most people - insufferable but likable’; she could be writing about anyone’s family and that is how most characters are in this book. We are forced to care about them; they are complex, annoying, difficult, selfish - and lovable. Once you have shared their challenges, their relationships and rivalries, you bid them a rather fond farewell as you reach the end of the novel.
She also weaves comedy into the difficulties of old age and its infirmities, as Abby begins to show signs of vagueness and confusion ...
Even the family house on Bouton Road, lovingly built by Red’s father, is a character itself with its enviable veranda which has seen so much of family life. Tyler shares with us the family history. Junior and Linnie Mae had an inauspicious start, caught ‘nekkid’ in the barn when she was no more than thirteen and he was twenty-six - but he was not the one in charge. They went on to produce two babies: a son, Red and daughter, Merrick.
Tyler weaves a gentle comedy into so many of the events which take place, events we can recognise as the drama of everyday life. She also weaves comedy into the difficulties of old age and its infirmities, as Abby begins to show signs of vagueness and confusion and has started to wander, both literally and metaphorically. Red, a builder by trade, has a mild heart attack and is going deaf. Can they cope living alone for much longer?
Tyler knows exactly how affection weakens even our most determined resentment.
The plot revolves around this common family crisis. The sons and daughters come together and decide how to help their ageing parents (who of course do not think they need help).
Stem moves into the house with his wife, three boys and dog. But then Denny arrives and announces that he’ll take care of everything. It’s an offer that sounds entirely sincere and completely unreliable. For years, Denny has practised a kind of passive blackmail, staying away for long periods, often without any contact; when he graciously returns at random moments, the family are grateful and do what they can not to rock the boat. During one pleasant visit, Red makes the mistake of asking, ‘Do you have a job?’, causing Denny to vanish 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
seems to need you? Tyler knows exactly how affection weakens even our most determined resentment. She knows what mysteries we are to each other. As Denny says, “they need me around for the drama”.
...and takes a poignant look at the close bond with all its secrets and jealousies and above all, love.
The title of this book is thoughtful; think about a spool of thread which unwinds and unwinds, there are no highs or lows. There is no great climax. '”The trouble with dying”, [Abby] told Jeannie once, “is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending.”’ – because there is no ending.
Tyler’s pen makes a simplistic story of family life compelling, as she breathes so much humanity into her characters and takes a poignant look at the close bond with all its secrets and jealousies and above all, love.
It was suggested at the time of publishing that A Spool of Blue Thread
would be Tyler’s last novel. Fortunately, this was not the case, and anyway, I have plenty of others yet to read.
A Spool of Blue Thread is published by Vintage