I’ve always felt a kinship with Anne Tyler. We’re close to the same age, and I’d feel comfortable having a cup of morning coffee with her on my back porch. I’ve read nearly all of her books – all set in Baltimore – and this novel, her twentieth, does not disappoint. I am once again in love with her storytelling.
The Whitshanks, a family of carpenters and wives and children, are the subject of A Spool of Blue Thread. The novel opens with Red and Abby in their twilight years, living in the house they inherited from Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie, who were killed in a car crash. Red and Abby have four grown children: two girls and two boys. One son, Denny, is the most handsome and the one who causes grief for his parents. He dropped out of college, can’t keep a job, and often disappears without telling his family where he is. During one of his disappearances, he married and had a daughter. Despite their troubled relationship, if anyone outside of the immediate family asks about Denny, his parents say he’s doing fine.
The Whitshank house is the lynchpin of the novel. It is a perfectly built and maintained home that sits on a slight hill with a flagstone sidewalk leading up to a big front porch with a swing and chairs arranged for looking out at neighbors passing by. The house was originally built by Red’s father for another family. When the original owners moved closer to town, Junior bought it and moved his family there, which he thought gave them respectability. But that never happened. Even though they never missed a Sunday at St. David’s Episcopal Church, the church leaders knew the Whitshanks certainly didn’t start out as Episcopalians. Junior talked people’s ears off, but Linnie was shy and quiet and noticeably younger. No one could figure out how they ever got together, not even their children. By and by we’ll find out, though. That’s the beauty of the way Anne Tyler writes. She lets you know the details little by little, so the reader says, “Aha.”
We’re introduced to a cast of characters, with all their good and bad qualities fitting together like pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle. Tender moments, jealousies, and carefully guarded secrets hold the pieces together.
Tyler deftly describes the perils of old age: a touch of forgetfulness, poor hearing that mistakes important words for unimportant words, humming parts of songs over and over, painful joints, and the inability to fall asleep quickly. She also knows the jargon of young people, and her multi-generational conversations on the front porch are perfect.
The color blue figures prominently in the novel: Denny uses blue thread to repair a shirt first fashioned by his mother for his father on their wedding day, during a particularly moving moment in the story. When you finish this story, you’ll feel like you know the Whitshanks, and you’ll understand the inner workings of a family through hard times and good times, through sorrow and joy.
I’ve read that Tyler says this is her last book. A talent like hers should only be silenced by the one thing that will finally silence us all. I’m hoping she’ll reconsider.