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A Spool of Blue Thread

February 23, 2015

A new Anne Tyler novel! I read A Spool of Blue Thread as soon as it came in the mail, and have drifted around my quiet house thinking about it ever since. As I read about Abby Whitshank and the teenaged son who is eager to leave her behind him, I identified with her as strongly as I have always identified with Pearl Tull in Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant, who connects her children growing up with the “gradual dimming of light at her bedroom door, as if they took some radiance with them as they moved away from her.”

The way the story of Abby’s family is told seems, at first, to be organized oddly, and yet it makes psychological sense to start telling the story of a family with grown children from the perspective of their mother and then to begin to tease out the secrets this mother kept by following that story with the story of how she fell in love with their father, the story of how their grandmother fell in love with their grandfather, how that grandfather built the house they grew up in, and finally how the grown children and their father sell the house and thereby lose their ability to learn any more of their own family’s secrets.

The novel begins with Denny calling his parents late at night to tell them a secret that is probably not true, and is never mentioned again. His father, Red, thinks that Denny has achieved his desired effect, which is to upset both of his parents. His mother, Abby, is worried that they don’t know how to call him back after he hangs up. We learn that he is 19, and his parents have no idea where he is living or what he is doing. He is their youngest child.

Denny gets in touch periodically, and during the recounting of these periods, we learn the names of his sisters, Jeannie and Amanda, and his brother, Stem (Douglas), who live twenty minutes away and whose spouses and children routinely join them at Red and Abby’s house for family dinners and at a beach house they rent for a week each summer.

The first time Denny doesn’t come to the beach with them is “the summer he claimed to be gay: nobody knew that he wasn’t coming. They kept waiting for him to phone and announce his arrival date, and when it grew clear that he wasn’t going to, everyone experienced the most crushing sense of flatness. Even after they’d arrived at the cottage they always rented, and unpacked their groceries and made up the beds and settled into their usual beach routine, they couldn’t shake the thought that he still might show up. They turned hopefully from their jigsaw puzzle when the screen door slammed in an evening breeze. They stopped speaking in mid-sentence when somebody out beyond the breakers started swimming toward them with that distinctive, rolling stroke that Denny always used.”
I’d like to think that both my kids will continue to come and eventually bring their spouses and children to our week at the beach, but we’ve already experienced a bit of the kind of thing Abby and Red say about Denny, that sometimes it feels like he’s gone off and joined another family rather than bringing his girlfriend into his own.

Much is made of the fact that this family, the Whitshanks, aren’t special “but like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills…. 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. To varying degrees they tolerated each others’s spouses, but they made no particular effort with the spouses’ families, whom they generally felt to be not quite as close and kindred-spirited as their own family was.” Stem looks and acts most like his father, although we find out that he is not related by blood; everyone except Denny is matter-of-fact about this.

The house has always been a gathering place. Abby is glad to hear that the children of her neighbors call it “the porch house,” and she thinks about how Red’s parents would appear on the porch “night after night to offer homemade lemonade to all the neighborhood gang.” But sitting on the porch by herself makes Abby think that “the plain fact was that no one needed her anymore. Her children were grown up, and her clients had vanished into thin air the moment she retired.” She believes she’d like to know “how everything turns out,” but what she wants is for her life to be at the center of the story (as it is in this first section of the novel).

No one goes through very many of Abby’s carefully-saved papers and poems and journals after she dies. In the next section, however, we get a look at how she saw the world when she herself was 19, when she “thought she couldn’t wait to finish her freshman year and come back to where she was cherished and made much of and admired. But all this summer she had felt so itchy and impatient,” much like we’ve already seen her son. We see her look at the man who will become her father-in-law and think “Oh, let Abby not ever get old!”  Although we know she has.

In the section about what happened between Red’s parents, we find out that Mrs. Whitshank, Linnie, thought of it as more of a romance than Mr. Whitshank, Junior, ever did. Except that he fell into her version of the story at some point. “He’d always known, even without her saying so, that she found him handsome. Not that he cared about such things! But still, he had been conscious of it, and now something was missing.” He has grown accustomed to her love and after a week without it he feels “the way a parched plant must feel when it’s finally given water” when she finally looks at him with love once again.

In the final section, her children hang out Abby’s traditional Halloween ghosts and Denny tells a story of how the blue thread he needed to mend his father’s shirt for his mother’s funeral fell out of her closet into his hand “like some kind of, like, secret sign.” Stories are continuing to be told, even though Abby is becoming peripheral to them, the things she found meaning in left at the curb and her children moving farther away from being able to understand what motivated the previous generations of Whitshanks.

It’s a wistful novel. It’s about how days keep stacking up and no matter how industriously a person works to record what has happened, no one else is ever going to care as much about seeing the world through that person’s eyes, or from the particular spot in the world where two people made their stand against the depredations of time, for a while.

It’s about how important it is to observe traditions and do things with your family, even when you’re 19 and drunk with freedom and power and never going to get old. It’s about how the story is not always about you, even when you’re the parent or the one in charge who gets to decide about the “right way” to live. It’s about family secrets, and when they matter, and maybe why we should try to keep fewer of them. Because what if, when we die, all our secrets die with us?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2015 3:43 pm

    Your last two paragraphs in particular are lovely – I really need to read more Anne Tyler.

    • February 24, 2015 10:57 am

      Have you read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant? In case you couldn’t tell, it’s my favorite.

      • February 24, 2015 2:19 pm

        No, only Breathing Lessons. But I know we have it at my library, so I’ll be sure to check it out once my TBR dare is over.

  2. February 24, 2015 3:29 pm

    I didn’t want to read all of this post, because this book has been on my wish list ever since I heard it was being published. I only wanted to get the gist of whether you liked it or not and apparently you did. I have not read anything by Anne Tyler but figured this would be the year to correct that.

    • March 2, 2015 11:19 am

      I did like it. If I hadn’t read anything else by Anne Tyler, though, I don’t know that I would start with this one. I’d start with Celestial Navigation or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

  3. freshhell permalink
    February 24, 2015 6:34 pm

    I was very excited when I learned she had a new one out but sad that the review said it would be her last. Now I not only need to read this one but I need to go back and re-read all her others.

    • March 2, 2015 11:18 am

      The last couple of times she’s published a new novel, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. She must have quite a work ethic.

  4. February 27, 2015 11:42 am

    Lovely review, Jeanne. I am a huge Tyler fan and will be reading this as soon as I can get hold of a copy. Mind you, it’s a tricky subject for those of us who have recently said goodbye to youngsters and have had to consign ourselves to the ranks of the oldsters and all the others left behind in the rush for life. Still, I imagine Tyler tells it beautifully.

    • March 2, 2015 11:20 am

      It is a tricky subject. I suspect you’ll like her approach as much as I do.

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