A new novel from prolific American author Anne Tyler is always cause for excitement, although as she has said it will be her last, this is tinged with some sadness too. A Spool of Blue Thread does not disappoint. It tackles some of the enduring themes of modern American life: the family as both platform and constraint, as solace and trauma; the American dream and the short and long-term consequences of our decisions on those around us. Tyler is able to capture and develop these themes without letting them weigh down what is a detailed micro-vision of one Baltimore family. Indeed, the great strength of the novel is that the reader is carried along in an absorbing examination that nevertheless feels like a very light touch and easy to read.
The book takes three generations of the Whitshank family as its subject, and through an episodic structure jumps from what we imagine to be contemporary times, in which the bulk of the book is set, to both 1959 and the Depression era of the 1930s. The central figures are husband and wife Red and Abby, their four children and Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie Mae, subject of the family’s ‘foundation myth’. Myth is the operative word here, as the reader comes to understand the stark differences between the reality and myth of Junior and Linnie’s relationship. This relationship is presented by Linnie as a true love story; but Tyler details the unspoken tensions and power struggles within that complex and long-lasting marriage in ways often funny as well as painful, in order to remind us about the ways in which families can be held together by such myths and traditions.
These myths move through the next two generations, as Tyler uncovers the powerful personality of Abby: free spirit, social worker, adopter of ‘orphans’ – the lonely and unsociable people she takes pity on and invites home for dinners, to the horror of her children. This tendency takes a more permanent and damaging turn when she unofficially adopts a young boy, Stem, who grows up believing he is a true Whitshank, while his birth mother, one of Abby’s ‘orphans’, continues to be invited for dinners to be laughed at by the family. This decision has a significant impact on the other son in the family, Denny, whose problems both open and end the book.
Not everything is resolved for the Whitshank family by the end of the novel; uncertainties and the old problems remain. However, there is much left to hope for. Denny, long regarded as the black sheep of the family, appears to be turning his fortunes around; Red seems to be settling into his new single life and his new bachelor apartment and Stem, the quasi-adopted fourth child, seems to be coming to terms in understanding his place in the family.
As the reader might expect from Tyler, the novel is beautifully accomplished: tightly drawn characters, a comfortable pace, clear, lipid prose. The best thing about it though is the compassion it demonstrates towards each character, despite their weaknesses and foibles. By building the novel around a multitude of perspectives but a limited range of people and events, the author reminds us that every individual is deserving of some compassion, however frustrating, selfish or scatty they may be. Tyler weaves through the personal micro-histories of all her characters, the placement of various revelations about each of them adding much to the drama and pace of what otherwise could be a sedate subject matter. She is able to pack a significant emotional punch as the reader moves through her absorbing narratives, with their thick descriptions and recurrent imagery, particularly around the colour blue (thread, clothes, paint). This of course reflects the heart of the novel: the cyclical nature of family life, the myths families build and then break down and the struggles, tensions and joy to be found within them.