Over the course of 20 novels, Anne Tyler’s artistry has become so assured and invisible that her books often read less like fiction than dispatches from the real world. In such midcareer masterpieces as “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and in recent works like “Digging to America,” Tyler has proved again and again that a chronicle of middle-class family life in Baltimore can illuminate the human condition as acutely as any novel of ideas, albeit with a more modest demeanor.
“A Spool of Blue Thread” is firmly rooted in the particular circumstances of its characters, who don’t go in for fancy talk about abstract issues. Nonetheless, the Big Topics are here: aging, death, greed, jealousy, the uses and abuses of love.
We meet Red and Abby Whitshank in 1994, when they receive a typically disorienting phone call from their 19-year-old son, Denny, who makes a startling announcement and then hangs up. Their ensuing discussion-cum-argument allows Tyler to cogently sketch the fraught family dynamic. Red tends to be critical, Abby tends to be over-involved, and Denny since childhood has adopted a reactive strategy of secrecy and disengagement. Over the next 18 years, he drops out of college, gets married, has a daughter, splits with his wife, wanders from job to job, and makes appearances at the Whitshanks’ home on Bouton Road just often enough to maintain contact with his family while keeping them guessing about what he’s actually doing with his life.
His cavalier ways infuriate older sister Amanda, a hard-nosed, take-charge lawyer, and dutiful younger siblings Jeannie and Stem, who both work for Red at Whitshank Construction. For his part, Denny feels excluded from family decision-making, particularly after their parents’ failing health prompts a crisis in 2012. He’s furious that Stem and wife Nora have moved in to take care of Abby and Red. Why does everyone assume he can’t be relied on?, he complains. Why don’t they appreciate his talents, like the boss who urged him to go into furniture-making?
“What happened with the furniture-making?” Jeannie asks. “Oh, well,” Denny replies. “I think we moved on to the boring part … so I quit.”
“‘Boring’ seemed to be his favorite word,” Tyler notes. As always, her dry humor is rooted in sharp-eyed but compassionate observation of her characters’ foibles. The escalating tensions she traces don’t feature heroes and villains; they’re the inevitable result of imperfect people struggling to deal with difficult situations. For all the anger and resentment that’s vented, Tyler also makes palpable the Whitshanks’ love for one another: the frustrated, irritable yet profound love that comes with intimacy — the roll of the eyes over a habitual quirk, the knowing smile at the umpteenth retelling of a family story that “had traveled down through the generations.”
Tyler begins excavating the reality underneath the well tended surface of the Whitshanks’ favorite tales in the novel’s second half, after she leaves Amanda and Jeannie packing up the Bouton Road house. The house stands at the center of those family stories: about Red’s father, Junior, who built it for someone else in 1936; about Red’s sister Merrick, who married to get out of it and into the Baltimore elite; and about Abby, who fell in love with Red while sitting on its porch swing in 1959.
At first it’s disconcerting to be pulled away from the Whitshanks’ present-day concerns, rendered with such immediacy and texture that they might be our next-door neighbors. But these journeys into the past deepen our understanding. We see the origins of patterns that continue to shape the family in Junior’s flight from backwoods North Carolina and thorny relationship with his countrified wife, Linnie Mae, who’s not nearly as helpless and submissive as she appears. Nineteen-year-old Abby’s musings about “The Wizard of Oz” wittily forecast the generous-hearted, slightly maddening wife and mother she will become, just as Red’s stoic endurance of Junior’s volatility predicts his method for dealing with disappointment and loss in his 70s.
People don’t change much, Tyler suggests, but they may come to better know themselves and those around them. When the narrative returns to 2012, this seems to have happened to Denny, who makes one of his usual abrupt departures but ruefully assures Nora, “I’d never just disappear; they need me around for the drama.”
Expertly staged by Tyler, the Whitshank family drama spotlights mixed emotions and divided loyalties familiar to all, though few of us manage to view our relatives with the clear-eyed empathy she bestows on her characters. Without minimizing their capacity for callousness and self-deception, she invites us to appreciate the inventive resilience of their responses to the challenges life sends them. “A Spool of Blue Thread” is vintage Anne Tyler, a truthful yet always gentle investigation of human nature’s rich variety.
Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar and author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
A Spool of Blue Thread
Alfred A. Knopf: 368 pp., $25.95