“It’s a Norman Rockwell kind of house”
Anne Tyler has long been one of my favourite authors. For 50 years now she has chronicled American family life in middle-class Baltimore, where she lives.
All her books are family stories, deceptively gentle, and yet she gets right to the heart of the good and the bad, how each member subtly reacts to the others, and shows all the deep antagonistic emotions which all families try to bury.
But her books – though certainly moving at times – are not sad; essentially Tyler is a comic novelist. The sharpness of her observations, even her description of a typical family meal, are often joyously funny.
A Spool of Blue Thread is about the Whitshank family, middle-class and living in the Baltimore suburbs. Four generations have lived in or close to the family home: Junior, whose construction business built it, and who loved it so passionately that he deceived the man who bought it into selling it back to him; Red, Junior’s son, and his wife Abby; their now mid-life children, and those children’s new and growing families.
There are three main characters in this superb novel: Abby, her son Denny, and the house. The house is the constant thread between the generations. It’s not splendid or stately, but the quintessential spacious, solid American home, ‘a house’ Tyler writes, ‘you might see pictured on a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, plain-faced and comfortable’ with a ‘wonderful full-length porch’.
It’s a Norman Rockwell kind of house, projecting the American dream of home-grown family happiness and togetherness. Inside it the Whitshank story, with all its affections and resentments, unfolds.
“One of those families that radiate clannishness and togetherness”
Although I’d never read a Tyler novel before, I loved this book. I really enjoyed the way she describes the Whitshanks, who are ‘one of those families that radiate clannishness and togetherness’.
This ‘ordinary’ family has a mother, Abby, a retired social worker full of good intentions and maternal pride. Of her children, Denny is the black sheep. He torments the others by vanishing and remaining out of contact for years, then turning up like the prodigal son.
Denny’s mother, and father Red, always bring out the fatted calf, which causes deep resentment in the siblings; they think his behaviour amounts to emotional blackmail.
Abby, at 72, is engagingly daffy; but her brain has started to ‘jump the track’. She is experiencing episodes of confusion and forgetfulness. Red then has a heart attack and the children rally round to look after their old folk – even Denny lends a hand.
His surprise arrival, after one of his many long absences, stirs a cauldron of jealousy, ancient grudges and guilt among his siblings. Secrets are revealed and historic grievances aired.
‘All my life Dad has made me feel I didn’t quite measure up… like I’m lame, I’m lacking…’ blurts Denny. What family doesn’t have at least one member who feels like that? And Tyler shows her sly gift for comedy when she writes an eternal lament for parents everywhere.
‘What other middle-class American teenager lived the way Denny did, flitting around the country like a vagrant, completely out of his parents’ control, getting in touch sporadically and neglecting whenever possible to give them any means of getting in touch with him?’
Modern family life, eh? Oh yes, Tyler gets it perfectly. This is a wise, humorous and loving book. A joy, in fact.