I loved this book. Apparently Anne Tyler’s critics call her fiction “cozy” and that’s exactly what I wanted. The moral of the story is that everything turns out OK in the end, very much like what your apple-cheeked grandma would have told you. The author allows us to identify with 70-something Abby’s narrative perspective until midway through the book, and then we rewind to the past when life is simpler and people pursue more innocuous ambitions, so the feeling of nostalgia permeates the book.
A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of the Whitshank family in Baltimore: Red and Abby, the parents; Amanda, Jeannie, Stem and Denny, the children. Denny is a problem child; he doesn’t fit in, he gets a girl into trouble at age 16, doesn’t finish college after much later, keeps getting laid off, marries a girl and it doesn’t work. He disappears for months and then turns up somewhere very unexpectedly. “Instability” is the word that describes him. Stem is the very opposite of that, but he’s just a background character until we learn that he’s an adopted child.
There were almost two storylines: one about Denny and Stem and the other about the Whitshanks’ relationship to their house. From the childhood, Stem has been a perfect child, and the fact that he’s adopted probably plays a part: deep down, he probably feels that he has to do everything the proper way in order not to lose his parents’ love. And this somehow makes Denny feel that he never lives up to Stem’s example. (He blames his father for hinting at this.) Stem acts out of sheer gratitude to his parents, while Denny is an angry and resentful person; seemingly enjoying hurting people’s feelings. One of his sisters accuses him of stealing every bit of their parents’ attention, when that never seems to be enough for Denny. A flashback at the very end reveals that we can’t blame sibling rivalry for Denny’s behaviour though; he’s had difficulty empathizing from a very early age. And the novel makes you wonder whether Abby could have been more careful to balance things out between her two sons, but I feel that the answer is no.
About the house; we learn the story of how the family acquired it and then the novel traces the succession of generations living in it, until they decide to move out. A Guardian review compares Anne Tyler’s work to that of Alice Munro – that’s how I felt too! The way Tyler recounts the family history across four generations reminded me especially of The View from Castle Rock. And I’ll have to agree with this reviewer pointing out that the story of how Ted and Abby fell in love, followed by the story of Junior and Linnie Mae, is a bit distracting. I think those could be told in a separate novel, with Denny and Stem forming a different plot.
I’ll look for her other books next time I go abroad.