Reading an Anne Tyler novel is like taking a lovely warm bath. You feel so safe reading her writing, so sure of her ability as a novelist that you completely relax, let yourself become absorbed in the world of her characters and settle in to enjoy the story.
A Spool of Blue Thread has received widespread critical acclaim, and rightly so. It tells the tale of the Whitshank family, and the house that has seen them through generations (a building that is arguably a character in itself). Tyler’s focus is (as so often in her novels) the family; the structure of it, the hidden backstories, the criss-cross of relationships that make up the whole. Abby and Red Whitshank are parents to Denny, Amanda, Jeannie and Stem (a nickname for Douglas) and they live in Baltimore, in a house with a porch, designed by Red’s father Junior. Tyler sidles into the story through Denny; we open with Abby pacing the floor worriedly after receiving a rare phone call from her errant son. Denny is one of the most vivid characters in the book, and the final few pages where Tyler hints deliciously at his personal life were some of my favourite in the whole novel.
Tyler manages to create characters that are so believable, it almost doesn’t matter what they do – we can fill in the gaps. It doesn’t matter that we never learn all of what went on with Denny and his girlfriends, because we can imagine, so clearly is he drawn. Abby practically jumps off the page; even when she dies she remains present through her absence, and Tyler conveys the loving exasperation of her children perfectly.
The secrets unveiled in the book are all surprising – particularly the loveless coupling of Linnie Mae and Junior, which grips the reader three-quarters of the way through and spins the story off in yet another direction. The author manages to make small occurrences – a splash of blue paint, a spool of blue thread – hugely significant and hugely entertaining. She really is a master of the semi-mundane.
Even larger issues are covered deftly, absorbed into the run of family life as smoothly as stitches in a rug. Jeannie’s post-natal depression is hinted at, as is Abby’s potential approaching dementia or ‘time jumps’ – and the secret of Stem’s real parentage is dealt with realistically and poignantly. There is a lot of focus on appearances, particularly through Junior, who is constantly trying to keep up with his neighbours and prove himself as someone worthy of a porch with a swing. The Whitshanks are a complicated family, but endlessly endearing; from their unexpected squabbles (‘Stem socked Denny in the mouth. It wasn’t an expert blow..’) to their moments of tenderness (‘He saw her yanking his whole life around the way she would yank a damp sweater that she had pulled out of the washtub to block and relapse. He supposed he should be glad of that last part.’) – Tyler makes us care about them – we want to know how their lives go after we close the novel, whether Amanda and Hugh stay together (Tyler merely hints at her dissatisfaction), whether Red likes his new apartment, whether Nora makes up for a missed session in church. Tyler won’t tell us. But we can imagine.