A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

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I interrupted my magical mystery tour to read the latest by Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread, which comes out in February. My lady friend received an advance readers’ copy and kept talking about how great it was. And given that the advanced readers copy was not on her Kindle, this was the rare book I could actually borrow from her when she was done with it.

I’ve only read two other Anne Tyler books—Breathing Lessons, and The Accidental Tourist—so I can’t claim to be an expert on her (she has published 21 books over the past 41 years). She sticks out in my memory, largely, for a time I defended her writing to a friend. This was 1991, when I was just out of college. My friend was surprised that I listed Breathing Lessons as a favorite book, among titles such as On the Road and Crying of Lot 49 that were more suited to a recently graduated English major. “She just seems so….ordinary,” my friend said.

As I think about it now, the “ordinary” remark seems to be not just about Tyler’s straightforward storytelling, but also about her sympathetic view of middle-class life. She never seems to be building up to some angry conclusion such as, “It’s all bullshit!”

In A Spool of Blue Thread, which I enjoyed very much, Tyler walks familiar turf at first. This book, however well-done, could be summed up, fairly, as “the story of a middle-class Baltimore family.” (The family’s name, by the way, is Whitshank, and I would love to ask Ms. Tyler if she came up with that name simply for the one scene in which teenage Denny Whitshank’s friends call him “Shitwank.”) But in the final third of the book the story escalates, as it pulls out of the present and into the family’s previous generations. In this section A Spool of Blue Thread reminded me of a much more high-concept book, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (an aside: when you are on amazon.com and you type in “life” and the first autocomplete offered is “Life after Life,” you know your book was a hit). The difference would be that in Atkinson’s book, one character lives the same life over and over, navigating altered courses of personal history. In A Spool of Blue Thread, it’s character traits, instead of a specific person, that carry on through different generations and situations that date from the bread lines of the Depression to the arrival of Hurricane Sandy.

My favorite character is one who only appears in these latter stages— Junior Whitshank, the patriarch who builds the house that all the other characters we’ve known will live in. On the day he finally moves into his dream house, he rails internally against his wife and how she ruins everything that matters to him, and always has and always will. The issue here is a porch swing, which she wants painted blue. He does not, and their machinations over the swing and the blue paint escalate until she gets in her forceful last word. But even as Junior vents, standing outside the home that his wife and children have entered, he reminds himself how much worse his life would have been without her, and goes on in.

Junior’s thinking brings to mind the old Churchill line about democracy, and how if domesticated, it could sum up Tyler’s “ordinary” logic. Family is the worst social unit we have, except for all the others.

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