Anne Tyler assures us that there’s nothing special about the family around whom she has built her latest novel. “There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks,” she writes. “None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence. And in looks, they were no more than average. Their leanness was the rawboned kind, not the lithe, athletic slenderness of people in magazine ads, and something a little too sharp in their faces suggested that while they themselves were eating just fine, perhaps their forefathers had not.”
And yet this ordinary Baltimore family makes A Spool of Blue Thread the sort of novel that’s hard to disentangle yourself from. Warm, charming and emotionally radiant, it surely must be counted as among Tyler’s best. Maybe that’s because the Whitshanks — Abby and Red and their four adult children, three of whom live within a few miles of their parents — see themselves as special even if they’re not. They revel in the bonds of their tight-knit group, though they are no less susceptible than any other family to the ebb and flow of irritation, resentment, jealousy, anger, estrangement and frustration. They love to imagine how they appear to others they don’t really know, like those neighbors who wave at them from their beach house every summer.
“[T]he two families never socialized,” Tyler explains. “They smiled at each other if they happened to be out on the beach at the same time, but they didn’t speak.” When daughter Jeannie suggests one summer that they march over and introduce themselves, her sister Amanda replies, “It would be a disappointment. ... They would turn out to have some boring name, like Smith or Brown. They’d work in, let’s say, advertising, or computer sales or consulting. Whatever they worked in, it would be a letdown. They’d say, ‘Oh how nice to meet you: We’ve always wondered about you,’ and then we’d have to give our boring names, and our boring occupations.”
Having control over our stories, in other words, is everything, and the Whitshanks, well, they are their own favorite subjects. In a deliberately recognizable way, they have constructed a family mythology through often-repeated tales, like the one about Red’s father Junior’s determination to live in the home he built for a wealthier man, the house in the fancy neighborhood with the big wrap-around porch that Red and Abby and their children adore.
Every generation has its narrative. “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon ...” is how Abby starts the familiar story of falling in love with Red, and her children know it by heart. There are the stories about Abby and Red’s sons, mild-mannered Stem and remote, unpredictable Denny, who can be relied on only to disappear at the first sign of trouble, and the resentment that has brewed between the two since they were children. Transcending their assigned roles in the Whitshank clan is a battle for them both.
But Tyler, author of 19 other books about such real, vibrant characters, understands that each narrow account offers only a partial view of the truth. And so A Spool of Blue Thread reaches back in time to flesh out each treasured story — Junior’s, for example, turns out to be quite different from what his offspring believe — offering a more complex, invigorating lens into these average and yet still fascinating lives. Even the closest family has secrets, and Tyler reveals them in a satisfying and moving way.
Tyler, 73, has been exploring the details of domestic life in Baltimore since 1964’s If Morning Ever Comes. That’s more than 50 years of producing luminous, comic, heartbreaking fiction. Sometimes her characters are quirky oddballs, like Macon Leary and his family in her most famous book, The Accidental Tourist, which was made into a movie with William Hurt and Geena Davis. A Spool of Blue Thread is closer in spirit to The Amateur Marriage and Breathing Lessons (for which Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize). Like many of her other works, it carries a strong wave of melancholy throughout, as time passes and the Whitshanks experience loss and changes to their beloved traditions.
A headline on a recent interview indicated Tyler had declared A Spool of Blue Thread her last novel, and the book would be a lovely ending to a brilliant career. Happily, though, Tyler dispelled the idea, saying that she’d never rule out writing another book. Here’s hoping for more of her wise, wonderful words.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.