Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

There aren't many surprises in this Anne Tyler novel, but somehow I connected with it more than other recent novels by her. It's familiar stuff: the setting in Baltimore, the focus on a fractured and fractious family, and Tyler's usual eye and ear for the telling detail of human relationships, one of her great strengths. A Spool of Blue Thread covers four generations of the Whitshank family. The star is Abby, the Tyler woman who holds together a family by the strength of her love and will. And there's plenty of quirk to go around as usual—her four children and their children are still more typical Tyler creations: a ne'er-do-well son, a child adopted under strange circumstances, two types of sisters. Most of the novel follows events in the here and now as Abby and her husband Red enter their 70s with worrisome failings. In the last third, Tyler pushes the action back in time to the late '50s, when Abby and Red began their relationship, and then even further back, to the original family scions, Junior and Linnie Mae, when the family homestead was originally built in the 1930s. The story of their lives and courtship is actually blunt and a little shocking. Linnie Mae seduced Junior (as the narrative goes) when she was 13 and Junior was 26. The story has its comical elements yet Tyler writing in 2015 knows we can't take a 13-year-old girl's sexual agency at face value. You can say it's the times and place—both Junior and Linnie Mae are also Southerners—but we know better, which undergirds their story with tension and anxiety, and thus the story of the whole family. I said Abby was the star, but her black sheep elder son Denny is another main player here, and another typical Tyler figure, a bit like Barnaby Gaitlin from A Patchwork Planet and a little like a Jonathan Franzen character. I see myself in them too. Like Denny, I'm a little amazed by people who stay in one place and/or in regular touch across a lifetime. I'm amazed at some of the things these people accomplish—annual weeklong jaunts to "the beach," for example. Really, every year? How do you do that? Denny is the guy, all tripped up in his own problems, who can only make it every five or six years, which all the others find ridiculous. I enjoyed this one a lot. It's full of stuff like that, like all the best Tyler.

In case it's not at the library.

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