Anne Tyler is excellent at writing family sagas and A Spool of Blue Thread is a wonderful example of her craft, even if many of the themes and plot lines will be familiar to her fans. Her twentieth novel is about three generations of Whitshanks, who live in a beautiful house that was built in a well-to-do Baltimore suburb by Junior, the ambitious Whitshank patriarch. The Whitshanks endlessly retell stories about themselves (and their house) to convince themselves of how special they are, but inconvenient historical truths and the harsh realities of ageing and death threaten the family’s complacency.
Echoes of her previous novels did occasionally distract me from the story. For instance, at one point, Abby Whitshank muses, “The trouble with dying … is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending,” just as Pearl in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant told herself that “dying, you don’t get to see how it all turns out.” Abby’s daughter, clearing out the house after a sudden death in the family, wonders “why we bother accumulating, accumulating, when we know from earliest childhood how it’s all going to end”, just as Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet, cleaning out Mrs Alford’s house, said, “I suddenly understood that you really, truly can’t take it with you.” Abby’s determination to look on the bright side of life, wilfully ignoring the facts, is reminiscent of Maggie in Breathing Lessons; Abby’s wayward son is a current-day version of Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet; even the Whitshank house, with its wide front porch and porch swing, brings to mind the Bedloe house in Saint Maybe. And, just as in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, characters who initially seem unlikeable, even despicable, are gradually revealed to have complex reasons for their behaviour, which provides some excuse and attracts some sympathy (not for Junior, though, who remained despicable to me).
If you aren’t familiar with Anne Tyler’s work, you won’t notice the reworking of previous themes, and if you do love her work, you probably won’t mind it too much. I really did enjoy the humour in this book (there were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments for me) and the clever observations, delivered in her characteristically sharp prose (for instance, when a family member attempts to make polite conversation with a visitor determined to be offended, the visitor “slammed each question to the ground and let it lie there like a dead shuttlecock”). The only reasons this book doesn’t make it into my Top Five Anne Tyler Novels list are that: a) it doesn’t contain any characters as vivid and lovable as Agatha in Saint Maybe or Maryam in Digging To America, and b) the meandering non-conclusion, while consistent with this novel’s themes, isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the conclusion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or A Patchwork Planet or The Accidental Tourist. I still think this is a great read and I highly recommend it. There’s also a terrific interview with the author here at The Guardian, in which she discusses, among other things, her friendship with John Waters (“I don’t go to biker bars with him. Once a year, he comes to mine for dinner and once a year I go to his. He’s a very sweet man”).
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