It would be easy to dismiss Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread” (Knopf) as “domestic.” It is literally so, with a plot that revolves around a Roland Park home where the Whitshank family’s deep front porch welcomes neighbors, friends, and the occasional drama. For Tyler, though, the domestic realm prompts the knitting together of interwoven and surprising tales that gently shift our perspective.
In the novel’s early pages, Tyler captures the essence of a house that has aged along with its residents, writing that a room “had the comfortably shabby air of a place whose inhabitants had long ago stopped seeing it.” Her narrative periodically leaps in time, saving its earliest events for its latest chapters and tracking the Whitshanks back to less-spacious residences and forward to the downsizing enforced by age. But the house remains central throughout, as does Abby Whitshank, who first crosses the porch as a teenage girl and whose marriage to Red Whitshank will make her the family’s matriarch.
Parents to four adult children, Abby and Red are in their twilight years as the novel begins. Suffering from brief losses of awareness, Abby can’t always account for her whereabouts. Family concern leads to the overprotective Stem (an unofficially adopted son) moving in, along with his seriously Christian wife and their three boys. They’re soon joined by prodigal brother Denny. Together they fill the house with noise and rivalry, and run roughshod over Abby and Red’s quiet routine.
Tyler coyly claims, “There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence.” I couldn’t help but hear echoes of the opening line of “Anna Karenina”—“All happy families are alike”—in Tyler’s downplaying of the Whitshanks’ eccentricities. It’s interesting that Tolstoy proceeds to write about distinctly unhappy families beleaguered by adultery, jealousy, betrayal, and suicide. The Whitshanks face the relatively lightweight challenges of middle-class Americans. They are, indeed, a happy family.
Abby, in fact, finds her happiness in the very challenges that her family faces. She annoys her children by caring too much, and extends that care to the “orphans” she ministers to as a social worker—and who sometimes show up for family dinners, to the family’s annoyance. She is a woman who relishes the minor dramas of her life, even as she finds them increasingly confusing.
Not far into the book, readers will be disappointed to lose a favorite character to an untimely death. Tyler’s time-travel structure, though, leads to a reunion, and the steady enlarging of our understanding of the Whitshank clan. In Tyler’s hands the story doesn’t simply bounce back and forth in chronology. As it encompasses multiple generations, the narrative expands horizontally, turning family history into a phenomenon where all stories are ever present. In the same early paragraph in which Tyler introduces the Whitshanks as unremarkable, she writes, “something a little too sharp in their faces suggested that while they themselves were eating just fine, perhaps their forefathers had not.” Such observations bring the past forward, making the forefathers present in the offspring.
Like her author, Abby has the ability to experience multiple moments in time simultaneously. Gazing on Red after 48 years of marriage, she sees beyond his aging features: “And then that clear-eyed, calm-faced boy would shine forth from Red’s sags and wrinkles, from his crumpled eyelids and hollowed cheeks and the two deep crevices bracketing his mouth and just his general obtuseness, his stubbornness, his infuriating belief that simple cold logic could solve all of life’s problems, and she would feel unspeakably lucky to have ended up with him.”
As the novel progresses, the expansion of time and the layered insights of character create an experience that is lightly spiritual—but never spiritual-lite. Unlike Marilynne Robinson’s more overt examinations of faith in her Gilead trilogy, Tyler’s work seems to stumble upon chance epiphanies. At a funeral service, a young pastor who has no knowledge of the deceased avoids the cliché bungling of the eulogy and wanders into a theological stream of consciousness. “Maybe the point is their memories,” he muses about the dead. “What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth . . . one more report on what living felt like. What it was like to be alive.”
A resident of Roland Park herself, Tyler won the Pulitzer for “Breathing Lessons” in 1988. Baltimore and its environs have been her source material since her arrival in 1967. For many, “A Spool of Blue Thread” will feel like familiar territory, not just because of its physical location but because of its portrayal of a typical middle-class family. What Tyler makes of that territory, though, will nudge the willing reader into a new way of looking at the world, at family, at time itself.