For years, a big part of the enjoyment of reading an Ann Tyler novel has been bumping into friends and relatives in the decidedly off-center characters who live between the covers of her stories. However, when the quirky character I kept bumping into in “A Spool of Blue Thread,” was myself, I didn’t find it quite so enjoyable.
This new novel of Tyler’s draws on the narrative of four generations of the Whitshank family, with Red and Abby Whitshank, at the center. As the primary thread unravels, Red and Abby are middle-aged – my age, to be precise. Red has had a heart attack and Abby shows signs of ‘mental confusion,’ calls the current dog by the name of an earlier dog, and acknowledges that sometimes her “mind skips, across a few minutes, like a needle on a record.”
Their four adult children conclude that their parents can no longer safely live on their own, so without any discussion with Red and Abby, two children move back home. One son brings three suitcases of clothes with him to last through multiple seasons, and the other son moves in with a wife and two young boys. This turn of events does not sit well with either parent and sets in motion the release of resentments and long-harbored grudges heretofore kept in check.
Families are emotionally complex, and no other author in my reading life nails the nuances of family angst as unerringly as Ann Tyler. Like an ever-rotating kaleidoscope, each person remembers events differently, according to his or her unique vantage point. Triumphs and disappointments, affections and jealousies, color and reassemble shared memories.
Ann Tyler creates very human characters, which she treats with respect and kindness while gently peeling away the layers of artifice. Like a good mother, she loves them unconditionally, all the while understanding and accepting their shortcomings. By the end of the novel, everyone has moved on – a bit. While no dramatic changes or ‘makeovers’ have occurred, there are hints of enhanced understanding and acceptance of one another as well as themselves.
During my lawyering years, I came to realize that the central fight for families was about whom mom liked best – not the Tupperware or the Templeton funds that the fight was purportedly focused upon. That is true of the Whitshanks as well.
Readers who like a story presented in black and white might as well steer clear of Ann Tyler, who works her magic in the gray shadows. If “A Spool of Blue Thread” were the first Tyler read for me, I am not sure I would have sought out others. But since this was her 20th novel – of which I have previously read 15 – it was an enjoyable homecoming, and a welcome reminder that there are a few more of her novels for me to unwind.
Andrea Griffith at Browser’s Book Shop in downtown Olympia ordered “A Spool of Blue Thread” for me and then put a Mylar cover on it. Great service.Posted by