Some longtime readers of Anne Tyler complain that she writes the same books over and over. I can’t dispute that there are similarities, the characters are quirky and often reticent. They are based in Baltimore. But, Tyler seems to perform the same kind of sly magic with each book, drawing readers into a world that might seem uninteresting from the outside and making readers care about characters that are distinguished by their very ordinariness. This is also true for A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth book.
The novel tells the story of the Whitshank family. It starts with the parents, Red and Abby, trying to figure out their son Denny, the black sheep of the family, who comes in and out of the family’s life as he wishes.
As the story progresses we learn that Stem, the reliable son, who was given that name by Abby who fell in love with the fragile stem of his neck when he was a boy, is adopted. He and Denny clash over their place in the family.
While Denny’s alienation is intriguing, Abby, a former social worker and mother, is at the heart of the family and the story. We see Abby age and get a glimpse of how she copes with change in passages like this:
Abby had a little trick that she used any time Red acted like a cranky old codger.
She reminded herself of the day she had fallen in love with him. “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon,” she’d begin, and it would all come back to her—the newness of it, the whole world magically opening before her at the moment when she first realized that this person she barely noticed all these years was, in fact, a treasure. And then that clear-eyed, calm-faced boy would shine forth from Red’s sags and wrinkles, from his crumpled eyelids and hollowed cheeks and the two deep crevices bracketing his mouth and just his general obtuseness, his stubbornness, his infuriating belief that simple cold logic could solve all of life’s problems, and she would feel unspeakably lucky to have ended up with him.
We also see Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie, learn of their accidental courtship and watch as they take possession of the family home on Bouton Road, a house that Junior lovingly crafted for another couple and had to have as his own.
The color blue is threaded throughout the story from the “a sky the unreal blue of a Noxzema jar” when Abby first decides she loves Red to the Swedish Blue that Red’s mother Linnie wants to paint the porch swing to the spool of blue thread that drops mysteriously from the linen cabinet on the day of Abby’s funeral.
The beauty of the novel lies in its depiction of the ordinary life of this ordinary family, their affections, rivalries, and traditions and in its acknowledgement of the power of time to make what seems permanent temporary.
The family house becomes a symbol of impermanence. We see the family enter the home for the first time when Red is a boy, and leave it as the book ends when Red moves out following Abby’s death. As the book ends, Denny departs on a train back to his own life leaving behind “. . .the house on Bouton Road where the filmy-skirted ghosts frolicked and danced on the porch with nobody left to watch.”
Ellen Birkett Morris’s interviews and reviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Louisville Courier Journal, Best New Fiction and Authorlink.com. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, and Santa Fe Literary Review.