Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel is set, like most of her work, in a version of Baltimore that is less like the inner-city war zone mapped in The Wire or the jolly freak shows of John Waters than the paintings of Norman Rockwell and the films of Preston Sturges. Tyler’s white, middle-class characters inhabit houses roomy enough for the discarded furniture and the sentimental detritus of earlier generations. Courtships are conducted on front porches, neighbors besiege the bereaved with covered casseroles, clans convene for summer vacations at the shore. Her Baltimore, we may feel, is a place that no longer exists, if it ever did, except in her novels. Yet her fans will recognize it instantly, with all the satisfaction one associates with a pleasant recurring dream. It’s Baltimore as Brigadoon, a place whose residents leave rarely, often with difficulty, and sometimes at their own peril.
Beginning with If Morning Ever Comes (1964) and including The Accidental Tourist (1985), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Breathing Lessons, awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize, Tyler writes novels that could be called realistic but that are remarkably free of the sort of everyday detail that attaches a narrative to a specific time and place. No one dresses in the latest fashions, downloads the latest hits, or covets the most advanced electronic gadgets. Few people seem aware of, or worried by, world affairs or current events.
The songs that play in their heads are likely to be the music they enjoyed in youth; Abby Whitshank, the matriarch in A Spool of Blue Thread, is a child of the 1960s grown old whose favorite tune is still “Good Vibrations.” A widower attends his wife’s funeral in the shirt in which he got married; a widow asks the mourners at her husband’s burial to reprise the romantic ballads sung at her wedding. They follow careers (social work, construction) and work at businesses (restaurants, beauty parlors) that could have, and in some cases did, employ their parents. Even the preschoolers seem to be existing in some mythical, apple-pie American past.
Our sense that these characters could be found in any agreeable neighborhood at any point during the last half-century doesn’t necessarily diminish their credibility or the plausibility of the situations in which they wind up. It’s as if a certain vagueness is part of Tyler’s point, an aspect of her search for some sort of domestic essentialism. Her novels suggest that the most important aspects of family life—the rewards and stresses of marriage, the bonds and fractures uniting and separating parents and children, the loyalties and rivalries among siblings, the totemic significance of a house—have a permanence that transcends the particularities of time and place.
One thing Tyler’s fictive families share is the firm conviction that their own family is unique. The Whitshanks are proud of the singularity they ascribe to some highly specific combination of nature and nurture:
Like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills…. All of them had inherited Junior’s allergy to ostentation, and all of them were convinced that they had better taste than the rest of the world. At times they made a little too much of the family quirks…or their genetic predisposition for lying awake two hours in the middle of every night; or their uncanny ability to keep their dogs alive for eons….
They shifted uneasily in their chairs during any talk of religion. They liked to say that they didn’t care for sweets, although there was some evidence that they weren’t as averse as they claimed…. They spoke with the unhurried drawl of people who work with their hands, even though not all of them did work with their hands. This gave them an air of good-natured patience that was not entirely deserved.
Were Tyler’s “special” families to meet, they would find plenty of common ground: jealousy, romantic betrayal, arrested development, agoraphobia, last-minute changes of heart that ruin or save entire lives, devoted couples who can barely get through the day without an argument. People do unforgivable things to their loved ones, brothers get into fist fights, mothers mistreat their children. But ultimately, the majority of these misguided and erring humans are decent, good at heart. Tyler likes her characters, and she wants us to like them too.
Abby and Red Whitshank, the husband and wife at the center of A Spool of Blue Thread, somewhat resemble Ira and Maggie Moran, whose road trip from Baltimore to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania, structures Breathing Lessons. For both couples, long intimacy expresses itself in a racketing querulous banter that might have long ago sent another marriage straight to divorce court. But Red and Abby find this reflexive contentiousness to be reassuring, even relaxing. Their arguments are as quickly forgotten as playground quarrels. Tyler takes a risk in assuming that characters who are so skillful at getting under one another’s skin won’t have the same effect on her readers, and that we will happily spend time with (and indeed be charmed by) people whom we might not want to sit near enough to overhear in a waiting room or airport.
In the novel’s first chapter, Red and Abby discuss their son Denny, who has just telephoned to announce that he is gay, a declaration that, we will learn, reveals less about his sexuality than about his need to test his parents:
“Things come harder to Denny. Sometimes I think you don’t like him.”
“Abby, for God’s sake. You know that’s not true.”
“Oh, you love him, all right. But I’ve seen the way you look at him—‘Who is this person?’—and don’t you think for a moment that he hasn’t seen it too.”
“If that’s the case,” Red said, “how come it’s you he’s always trying to get away from?”
“He’s not trying to get away from me!”
“From the time he was five or six years old, he wouldn’t let you into his room. Kid preferred to change his own sheets rather than let you in to do it for him! Hardly ever brought his friends home, wouldn’t say what their names were, wouldn’t even tell you what he did in school all day. ‘Get out of my life, Mom,’ he was saying. ‘Stop meddling, stop prying, stop breathing down my neck.’”
Many of the families Tyler portrays include at least one member who feels like the odd one out and suffers from a sense of exclusion that is inevitably self-fulfilling. Among the most memorable of these domestic outliers is Cody, the oldest of the three Tull children in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982). His belief that his brother Ezra is the favored son leads him to disrupt holiday dinners—and wreck his brother’s marriage. Some vestige of Cody’s resentful spirit animates Denny, the most unsettled of Red and Abby Whitshank’s four offspring, and—at least according to his younger brother Stem—the most adored by their mother. Denny is the prodigal who vanishes for long periods, then turns up, confident of the welcome he will receive from a family that not only loves him but has an almost religious faith in their own loyalty and cohesion.
If Denny is the child who has always demanded and gotten an unequal share of his mother’s care and concern, he—like so many romantic malcontents and damaged souls in Tyler’s books—is also the one with the strongest claim on the author’s interest, and consequently on that of her readers. Denny’s siblings seem, by contrast, a bit shadowy and unclear. The most striking thing about his younger brother Stem is that he is adopted, and though he behaves more illogically (and more interestingly) after the circumstances of his adoption emerge, for most of the book he remains “that mild, accepting kind of person who just seemed to take it for granted that life wasn’t always going to go exactly as he’d planned it.” Stem is an amicable worker in Red’s construction business and has married the unselfconsciously sexy, good-hearted, churchy, fundamentalist Nora, who insists on addressing Abby as Mother Whitshank. Stem and Denny’s sisters (both have husbands named Hugh) are something of a challenge to tell apart until we remember that Jeannie is the more reserved sister, the one who summoned Denny to help see her through a troubling postpartum depression, while Amanda is the bossy one, “a lawyer, their hardest-nosed, most competent, most take-charge child.”
The seemingly effortless, leisurely pace at which Tyler introduces her complicated, multigenerational family and lets the plot unfold (pausing for long flashbacks and apparent digressions that will turn out to be central to her design) belie the skill with which she compresses information into a relatively short space. Early in the novel, we learn something about the Whitshanks’ history. We discover approximately where Red’s father Junior came from—it “was never documented, but the general feeling was that he might have hailed from the Appalachian Mountains”—and how tightly family history is entwined with that of their Baltimore house:
In 1936, he fell in love with a house…. Not a grand house, of the sort that you might expect a man like Junior to covet. It was more, let’s say, a family house. A house you might see pictured on a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, plain-faced and comfortable, with the Stars and Stripes, perhaps, flying out front and a lemonade stand at the curb.
This love affair begins when Junior is building the house, in theory for an employer but actually for the life he imagines living there:
It was nothing but an architect’s drawing the first time he laid eyes on it. Mr. Ernest Brill, a Baltimore textile manufacturer, had unfurled a roll of blueprints while standing in front of the lot where he and Junior had arranged to meet. And Junior glanced first at the lot (full of birds and tulip poplars and sprinkles of white dogwood) and then down at the drawing of a front elevation, which showed a clapboard house with a gigantic front porch, and the words that popped into his head were “Why, that’s my house!”
After years of “biding his time” he manages to buy it from the Brills and moves in with his shy wife Linnie Mae and their children, Red and Merrick. “Red remembered growing up in that house as heaven.”
Junior’s acquisition of the house is one of the Whitshanks’ two family stories that
had traveled down through the generations. These stories were viewed as quintessential—as defining, in some way—and every family member, including Stem’s three-year-old, had heard them and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times.
The second of the family stories concerns Red’s sister Merrick, a social-climbing striver and casual high school friend of Abby’s. Though Merrick is a peripheral figure, her unenviable fate—her Princeton-educated husband is a “cold, aloof man unless he was drinking, in which case he grew argumentative and boorish”—offers a cautionary tale about the drawbacks of upward mobility, a lesson that sensitizes the reader to the understated but critical ways that social class and status affect the characters in the novel. The economic divisions in A Spool of Blue Thread might seem slight compared to the ones that we know exist in a wider Baltimore. But they are all-important to these characters, some of whom have risen from poverty to prosperity in one generation. Junior’s parents may have been country folk, but he has pulled his family up from the trades into the urban middle class, and his tenuous grip on this new life has made him sensitive to minor gradations in wealth and position. We are hardly surprised when his aspirations blind him to the rightness of his son’s marrying Abby, whose background won’t give Junior’s family the desired dynastic boost.
In the final sections of the book, a series of flashbacks suggest that the most revealing family stories are stories that no one ever told—and that show another side of the Whitshanks than the more beloved family tales. It takes nerve for a writer to include a pair of extended (and again deceptively digressive) flashbacks so late in a novel, but these two chapters—one about Linnie Mae and Junior’s courtship, the other about a parallel moment in the lives of Red and Abby—change the impressions we have formed of a clan that prides itself on patience, constancy, and sanity. The family has chosen not to look back at, or recognize, stories that might have helped them see certain precedents for Denny’s erratic behavior—and more readily understand it.
A strain of impulsivity, stubbornness, and feckless irresponsibility turns out to be as much a part of the family’s makeup as the stolid forbearance on which they pride themselves. The events that preceded Junior’s marriage to Linnie Mae are harrowing; the romance she has described to her daughter-in-law as “one of the world’s great love stories” turns out to have involved cruelty and abuse. Yet ultimately it creates the safe, middle-class “heaven” in which their children and grandchildren are raised. The other story, about Abby’s falling in love with Red, is considerably more complex than the simple idyll she has portrayed, the soothingly romantic tale of the meeting of soul mates:
“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon…” Abby began. Which was the way she always began, exactly the same words, every single time. On the porch, everybody relaxed. Their faces grew smooth, and their hands loosened in their laps. It was so restful to be sitting here with family, with the birds talking in the trees and the crosscut-sawing of the crickets and the dog snoring at their feet and the children calling, “Safe! I’m Safe.”
Only later do we learn that Red and Abby’s story also involved a victory over Red’s snobbish and disapproving father, as well as Abby’s decision to give up her attractive bad-boy boyfriend, who would have made her unhappy, and to opt instead for Red’s slightly puppy-like devotion. Though her children have always assumed (“so far as they knew”) that she never loved anyone but Red, the truth turns out to have been somewhat different. Gradually—at this late point in the book—we understand how powerfully Abby’s daffy but endearing generosity of spirit would have appealed to Red, after a childhood dominated by his father’s relentless good taste.
Critics have charged Anne Tyler’s novels with being sweet or sentimental. It’s been claimed that she prizes charm over a powerful confrontation with something more profound. In a review of The Amateur Marriage (2004), Adam Mars-Jones accused Tyler of offering the reader “milk and cookies.” But in fact all sorts of momentous and tragic events happen in her books: there’s suicide, child abuse, illness, death, grief, lifetimes of quiet desperation. Much of A Spool of Blue Thread concerns the ways in which family members recalibrate their relationships and adjust in the aftermath of loss.
Nor does Tyler shy away from the distressing stages of the Whitshanks’ aging. Red suffers a heart attack, and Abby’s lifelong spaciness begins to hint at something more ominous:
She began to go away, somehow, even when she was present. She seemed to be partly missing from many of the conversations taking place around her. Amanda said she acted like a woman who’d fallen in love, but quite apart from the fact that Abby had always and forever loved only Red, so far as they knew, she lacked that air of giddy happiness that comes with falling in love. She actually seemed unhappy, which wasn’t like her in the least. She took on a fretful expression, and her hair—gray now and chopped level with her jaw, as thick and bushy as the wig on an old china doll—developed a frazzled look, as if she had just emerged from some distressing misadventure.
Abby begins referring to her dog Brenda as Clarence, “although Clarence had died years ago and Brenda was a whole different color.”
The children must come together to decide what to do with the diminished parents rattling around in a big old house. The resulting confusions and tensions reanimate several restless family ghosts and exhume some buried secrets. Both sons succumb to the temptation that so often lures Tyler’s characters, the urge to move back home, an impulse more easily gratified when the grown children are doing their elderly parents a favor. Like Red Whitshank, we wait to see how his well-meaning offspring will engineer his painful divorce from the house that he loves and that has loomed so large in the lives of three generations.
Near the end of the novel we watch another Whitshank legend take shape, this one involving Denny, a favor he’s agreed to do, and the titular spool of blue thread. An apparent accident strikes Denny as a sign: an indication that he and his mother have forgiven one another for the hurts and misunderstandings of the past. As with so many family stories, this one suggests that the dead are always with us, regardless of whether or not we may try to get free. Pages later, a sort of coda hints that Denny may be all right, after all.
To say that the novel ends on a mildly hopeful note is to say that it is an Anne Tyler novel. Even her sadder characters possess a hint of goofiness that buoys them and keeps them afloat, when in the work of another writer they might go under and drown. Faulting Anne Tyler’s fundamental belief in redemption, or at least acceptance, is like complaining that one doesn’t like Thomas Bernhard because his narrators are so sour and gloomy, or that one doesn’t enjoy the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett because they all involve a patriarchal British family chattering around a breakfast table. Some writers travel widely in their work, while others find a single locale and stay there; one feature of the latter sort is that you know what you will get. Anne Tyler’s novels are invitations to spend time in the houses of the Baltimore neighborhood that she has built—house by house, block by block, word by word—over her long and bright career.