Friday 8 May 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of the Whitshank family, and to begin with it is mostly about Abby Whitshank and her husband Red in the later stages of their marriage. Abby has become confused, sometimes wandering off and forgetting why, so it's time for the younger Whitshank members to return to the well-proportioned house their grandfather built to discuss their parents' future.
    It is an awkward gathering, particularly when it is suggested that Red and Abby might be happier in some kind of retirement home. We already know that Red is the stubborn one, and still turning up at the family building business every day, he isn't likely to accept change easily. Abby is the opposite, an overly caring mother, with a habit of bringing home waifs and strays connected with her social work. But even Abby doesn't see the need for any fuss.
    They have raised four children, no-nonsense Amanda with her sharp business suits, Jeannie who works for the company business along with younger brother Stem who has taken on its management and is so much like Red in many ways. Which is a little strange because Stem is adopted, while Denny, two years older, drifts from job to job and never manages to keep a relationship. He disappears for months and sometimes years without anyone knowing where he is. The story of Stem's adoption is quite heart-breaking but also reveals what an incredible softy Abby is.
   The baggage which is hinted at between Stem and Denny is a story slowly unravelled, like the blue thread of the title. There is also the story of how Abby fell for Red  that creeps in towards the end of the book, and after that the peculiar courtship of Red's parents Junior and Linnie Mae. The blue thread is subtly there in odd corners - the blue of the shirt that Abby makes Red for their wedding, also the colour Linnie Mae requests for the porch swing of the Whitshank family home.
    There are enough disturbing secrets and revelations to keep the reader interested in the plot of the novel. But what Tyler is so wonderful at is the way she describes families. I found I could relate to events she describes, and even her characters sometimes reminded me of my own family members in a different country and hemisphere. It seems families are alike the world over. And like many families, the Whitshanks have come through some difficult times, but Tyler leaves us with the hopefulness of new beginnings and the promise of continuing generations.
    Throughout the novel there is the humour of Tyler's dialogue and her talent for capturing characters through tone of voice and idioms: Red's 'What the hell!' rejoinders; Linnie Mae's mispronunciations that indicate her humble origins. It is altogether a rich tapestry of American and family life, and another classic from the author of favourites like The Accidental Tourist and Searching for Caleb.

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