It has always been an easy question for me to answer—“Who’s your favorite author?” Without a moment’s hesitation I say, “Anne Tyler.” Yet afterwards I sometimes ask myself if it’s only because I’ve been reading and savoring her books since the 1970s, and I’m simply taking the easy way out. But after finishing Tyler’s 20th novel, “A Spool of Blue Thread” (2015), I can say with assurance that she merits being at the top of my list. Nobody beats the way her observant and playfully wise narrator involves me in her characters’ lives. She makes reading an almost cinematic experience.
Tyler is a master of family stories, and the saga of four generations of the Whitshank clan of Baltimore is on par with her best. Three of the four grown children of 70-something Red and Abby have duly stayed close by their parents, but after Red had a heart attack and Abby began having spells of confusion, their son Stem, his wife Nora and their two little boys pack up their house and move in with them. Denny, their other son, whose whereabouts are always a mystery, suddenly shows up, announcing that he is moving in to help. His offer surprises the group. Though he’s considered the best looking and most generous of their kids, he is also the one whose drug use, lack of education and persistent unemployment have caused them the most worry.
Tyler tells us there was nothing particularly notable about the Whitshanks, “but, like most families, they imagined they were special.” Abby, a retired social worker, routinely brings home foreigners or needy folks she meets in line at the grocery store—“her orphans” they’re called—for dinner and ongoing friendship. The two Whitshank daughters, Jeannie and Amanda, ever-present and full of pronouncements about their parents’ lives, are both married to men named Hugh. Jeannie’s Hugh (in contrast to Amanda’s Hugh) has had a string of jobs and currently owns a restaurant called Thanksgiving that only serves turkey. Stem’s wife Nora is a devoted follower of a strict, unnamed religion, and she insists on addressing her in-laws as Father Whitshank and Mother Whitshank, much to their displeasure. The house is overflowing with well-meaning people, who inadvertently stomp onto one another‘s space. Fortunately though, the family “had a talent for pretending that everything was fine.”
The novel is divided into four parts that are not in chronological order. These shifts in time serve as an effective way of allowing us different perspectives on family members and their forbearers. I alert you to this because in the first section, an appealing character dies. I was bereft wondering how I could go on without her, only to see her again at a younger age where she emerges full of life. That emotional blow is something only Anne Tyler could deliver.