Frayed edges: Spool of Blue Thread (review)

Spool of Blue Thread (Edelweiss DRC)
Anne Tyler

“The disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”

Spool of Blue ThreadI started reading Anne Tyler about twenty-five years ago when I with Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant (which is still one of the few novels my husband has read at my prodding).  From there I backpedaled and read some of her earlier novels (Morgan’s Passing, Searching for Caleb, Celestial Navigation) then, through the years, read on to Breathing Lessons, Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, and, just a year and a half ago, The Beginner’s Goodbye. I never regretted a single one of those reads–which is unusual for me 1) because I’m picky and 2) because the quality of authors’ work does tend to fluctuate–and A Spool of Blue Thread is no different.

Red and Abby Whitshank frequently squabble, sometimes disconnect, often nag, but, in the end, settle back into their love story which Abby’s many retellings always begins the same way: “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon …”  Abby, a social worker, is a bona fide hippie turned grandma. She writes found poetry from scraps of magazines, newspaper, and letters. Her biscuits melt-in-your-mouth. And Thanksgiving dinner always includes “orphan” guests—immigrants, students, widows, and an odd assortment of down and outers. For his part, Red runs the family construction business along with two of the children. Red is busy, a bit gruff, a little stiff—especially next to Abby’s earth motherliness. But always, there is that love.

The Whitshank children—Denny, Amanda, Jeannie, and Stem—are in and out of Red and Abby’s lives and there’s a passel of grandchildren nowadays to keep track of. Only Denny gives them any cause for concern, really. He’s every family’s never-keeps-a-job-girl-home kind of guy. The kids jostle for attention, competing (most of the time) with good nature. Yes, Amanda is bossy and Stem is a goody two shoes—but always, there is that love.

And center to it all is the Whitshank home, built to perfection for another family by Red’s father Junior, (who probably had a plan all along for the home to return to him). It is Norman Rockwell picturesque, right down to the flagstone walk and the deep, wide porch.

But while it seems like a story book family, the Whitshanks hurt each other. There are secrets. Betrayal. And loss. Lots of loss.

What I like about Tyler’s novels is the fact that she takes some pretty dysfunctional families and endears them to us until we realize that there are more ways than one for families to live and love. If the characters were in therapy or marriage counseling, it would be a pretty messy business. But Tyler shows us that families come in all shapes and sizes, usually with a little wear and tear, a few frayed edges. But no matter—family is just that.

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