Can a house be a character in a book? I’ve been thinking about this ever since I finished Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. Tyler incorporates her favorite themes of family and relationships into the story and her characters are tightly connected to the Baltimore family’s house on Bouton Road, where three generations have lived. And in that house the big question remains. If the anchor is pulled, where will they go?
This is only one of the themes in the book, the question of what ties a family together and how this changes as its members move on, grow older or die. The Whitshank family is both typical and unique in this regard, with its own set of problems and complex dynamics. When Abby Whitshank becomes forgetful and Red’s hearing worsens, their adult children come together, messily, to help them. Contributing to this drama is Denny Whitshank, the third child, and the family’s rebel. He’s perpetually misunderstood, causing all the problems that come with being a wayward son. But his siblings privately wonder, has he been their mother’s favorite all this time?
Class distinction and getting ahead drove the family’s patriarch, Junior Whitshank, who came from nothing and built a construction business, including the house on Bouton. That drive only carries to some of the family and is often in conflict with his wife’s down-home ways and his daughter-in-law, Abby’s social consciousness. Here’s a good example of a common difference in thinking which can pit family members against each other.
The plot jumps back and forth between the lives of Red, Abby and their children and Junior and Linnie Mae’s marriage a generation before. Learning the backstory after knowing the characters is one of my favorite story structures because I think it resembles the way we get to know people and understand their actions.
I enjoyed this story very much, in which Tyler creates a complicated family, full of undercurrent secrets and an unacknowledged division between its members. And despite this division and simmering aggression, they manage to maintain their dedication to each other when they pull together, without question, for emergencies, holidays and group vacations. I felt invested in these characters, developed my own favorites and hoped for the best when relationships took their hits.
I read this book greedily, thinking I knew how it would end, but I was a little disappointed with its uneventful finish, which will no doubt lead to a lot of book club discussion. Perhaps such an ending is Tyler’s point, that sometimes the buildup to a big decision makes the day it happens kind of ordinary.
I recommend A Spool of Blue Thread to readers who like stories about families. If you’re an Anne Tyler fan, you will enjoy this one as much as the others and look forward to the next one!
Check out The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler here.
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