Baltimore is a city that I have never visited, despite frequent trips to the US (from my Australian home) in the 1990s. Yet, of all the places in the US I have never been, it sits alongside New Orleans as somewhere that lives in my subconscious, or at least a particularised version of it. The reason? Well, there are two – one is The Wire, and the other is Anne Tyler.
A Spool of Blue Thread, like most of Tyler’s novels, is set primarily in Baltimore, with occasional diversions. Baltimore is a character in this family story – a suburban, communal Baltimore, yes, but also a Depression-era, hard-edged, tough-times city. What I particularly like about Tyler’s writing of the city and its suburbs is her facility with the intimate. There is no attempt to deliver a grand narrative of Baltimore writ large; rather, we see the picture-window framing that represents what actual people living in a place experience. A suburb may be the whole world, in certain circumstances; Tyler understands this, and conveys it, as she charts the course of this family story across time and space.
The book is the story of the Whitshanks – opening in 1994 with septuagenarians Red and Abby, and their concerns about their elder son Denny, but telescoping back and forth across their lives and the lives of Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie Mae. Red and Abby’s four children, Amanda, Jeannie, Denny and Stem (Douglas), their spouses, their children, and Red’s sister Merrick are all splayed in constellation around Red, Abby and the family home, which also occupies central ground in the tale. The house was built by Junior Whitshank, founder of the family carpentry business, for a wealthy client; Junior’s obsession with the house, and eventual acquisition of it, forms a spiky backstory to the central plot, one that is only revealed late in the piece.
Tyler has often been accused of retelling the same plot with marginally different characters. It’s certainly true that those who have read and enjoyed books like Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist will find familiarities, and comforts, in the Whitshanks. Red and Abby replicate the laconic husband, free-spirited wife dynamic that Tyler has used before to such effect. Tyler’s abiding interest in, and fascination with, the American family is on proud display here; this is, above all else, a story about families, how they make and remake themselves, and is a clear exemplar of Tyler’s key proposition that families are both interesting and significant. The stuff of life lies in the intricate dance we do with those we love and are bonded to; this is the core message, if one must be found, of not just A Spool of Blue Thread, but all Tyler’s books.
That said, this book is successful on its own merits, in ways that that readers and reviewers that disparage Tyler do not acknowledge. Tyler is an accomplished sketcher of people; her characters are not just plausibly lively, they are alive, and their behaviours are so entirely real that it almost feels like a shock as a reader to recognise the resonances of them.
That this is a masterful skill cannot be underplayed, when you consider that, on the face of it, Tyler is dealing out what look like classic stereotypes: worthy citizen / tradesman dad, ditzy social justice warrior mum, snobby eldest daughter, pragmatic second daughter, feckless ne’er-do-well elder son, and responsible, reliable younger son. The potential for the Whitshanks to be one-dimensional was high, but Tyler never allows her people to rest on the laurels of what they are; they all move, talk, grumble, flail, in ways that reveal unexpected corners, inconsistencies, uncharacteristic traits – all the idiosyncracies that make them fully human.
Tyler’s decision to tell the story of Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie Mae, very late in the book is a strategic one, and serves to break up the gentleness and decency of Red’s family story in a way that makes best use of disjunction. Linnie Mae’s casual revelation to a young Abby that she and Junior started a sexual relationship when Linnie Mae was only 13 (Junior was 26, twice her age), has a startling and discomfiting effect, which is played to good effect as Tyler expands on the backstory. Her decision to make the 13-year-old girl the initiator of not just the relationship, but all that flows from it (the marriage, the decision to have children) is a potentially risky one; Tyler herself seems aware of this, giving Abby the reflection that Linnie Mae’s romanticised version of events was highly disturbing: “Had it never crossed Mrs Whitshank’s mind that what she was describing was … well, a crime?”
While the relationship between Red and Abby is ultimately positive, supportive and affirming, the relationship between Junior (himself not a very likeable character) and Linnie Mae is characterised by two-sided ruthlessness, self-absorption and lack of comprehension of their partner as a human being. Tyler does something very interesting with these characters – she effectively paints a picture of Linnie Mae as being close to a narcissist in her approach to life, melding a determined romanticism with a rock-hard determination to shape events to her own vision. Linnie Mae’s effortless manipulation of the sour, inferiority-obsessed Junior is chilling in its way, and serves to dilute the undoubted sweetness of the Red-Abby partnership.
Nonetheless, and despite their rubs and grievances and odd little secrets, Red and Abby’s family, which is the main focus of the book, is functional, loving and close. They exasperate each other to the full measure that families do, but there is a bedrock of affection and connection that holds them together and draws them back.
In these Whitshanks, Tyler is prosecuting her central thesis of human life: that most people are not fundamentally unpleasant, and that most people form affective bonds with those around them. Perhaps this is a chocolate-chip cookie version of American life, but if so, it’s a rough, home-made, gritty, grainy cookie, not flawless, not picture-perfect, but replete with comfort all the same. And that’s what makes the book both beautiful and moving to read. The comfort of family is not, in the end, a saccharine substitute for real life; for many people, it IS real life, every bit as real as the harshness and strangeness that is often presented as the only true thing.
“On the porch, everybody relaxed. Their faces grew smooth, and their hands loosened in their laps. It was so restful to be sitting here with family, with the birds talking in the trees and the crosscut-sawing of the crickets and the dog snoring at their feet and the children calling, ‘Safe! I’m safe!’”
Photo by Les Chatfield, licensed under a Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic license