“That was another of their quirks: they had talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”
Anne Tyler has a knack of making the ordinary sublime and A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD is no exception. In many ways it’s the story of a house and home, representing one family’s hopes, expectations and sense of themselves. It’s also the story of how the family changes from one generation to the next, absorbs new members and loses older ones.
The book opens with a beguiling phone call from black sheep, Denny Whitshank, to his parents Abby and Red, and with the proclamation that he is gay. But this is not the start of anything, nor indeed the end, it’s just another moment in time. As is the very first day of 2012 when “Abby began disappearing” and when Linnie May, Red’s mother, interferes with the porch swing. Even explosive secrets soon fizzle out and become just part of the family tapestry. A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD is a comforting blanket stitched from many such moments. Each individual member of the clan is richly depicted, with real warmth and humour. Even minor characters are given the Tyler treatment – Denny’s short lived wife, for example, is “pleasant but distracted, as if she were wondering whether she’d left a burner on at home”. The moments and their players are held together by the family thread, even from beyond the grave, with the resulting whole definitely the star attraction.
Tyler’s lightness of touch is a joy. Her humour as expansive and welcoming as the family home Abby admired when she first met Red’s parents and sought to recreate when they got married. One of my favourite moments is when the pair are mulling over the day before going to sleep and considering what they’d use just one wish on if they had it. Abby declares she’d ask for wonderful lives for all their children, then protests at Red’s failure to put family first when he responds with a wish that his main competitor would be made bankrupt. Her husband’s logic though, is indisputable: “I do put it first. But you already took care of that with your wish.”
Domesticity, minor dramas, discontentment and muddle provide the framework for some universal human truths – such as feeling superfluous when your children have grown up and built their own lives; that “The trouble with dying is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out.”; how the parents of difficult children are left holding sackfuls of anger and resentment, even when they are rejoicing that things seems to be turning out alright; the way we can all sometimes pretend not to notice the passenger standing who needs our seat more than we do; and no matter what your notions of how things should be, everyone else will carry on as they like, regardless.
In the hands of a less deft writer A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD could have been cloying but Tyler determinedly avoids giving us cosy perfection. This is life full of rough edges, indignity and disappointment – and all the more enjoyable for it.