When the skies are gray and the snow is swirling outside the window, we need a prescription for our cabin fever. More cowbell? Not for me — a warm sofa, a cozy blanket and a good piece of fiction are the perfect cure for my winter blues.
For many people, reading fiction provides an escape from reality, and the characters in their favorite novels are not people you would run across in your daily life. The heroes are handsome, the heroines are beautiful, and their struggles involve power, wealth, sex and suspense. Not so with an Anne Tyler novel — open the pages and you will enter a world that lacks most of those features yet draws you in and commands your interest through the last page.
Tyler’s latest work, “A Spool of Blue Thread” employs the same style that has earned her a Pulitzer Prize and critical acclaim throughout her long career. With brilliant detail and realistic language, Tyler introduces us to her characters by slowly peeling away their layers. Her obvious affection toward the people she creates is evident in Tyler’s compassionate and almost indulgent descriptions of their strengths and weaknesses. You will seldom meet a beautiful or handsome character—the men may have lanky hair, jutting elbows, soft middles. The women may be thin, overweight, have frizzy hair or frumpy wardrobes. But Anne Tyler never taints her descriptions with condescension and it is those very features that someone else in the story will likely find attractive.
In “A Spool of Blue Thread” the main theme, like most of Tyler’s work, deals with relationships. Whether it’s spousal, parent and child, or siblings—each of Tyler’s novels provides insight into the mysterious bonds that are forged through biology, circumstance and happenstance. There may be mourning over love lost and chances never taken; there may be regrets or redemption, missed connections or fateful meetings. One thing is certain, you will find an element in the story that connects you and keeps you invested to the finish.
In this case, we meet the Whitshanks, parents Abby and Red along with their four adult children. We are immediately introduced to Abby, Red and son Denny with a phone call that quickly dispels any illusion of the perfect family. While Abby imagines herself the doting cheerful mother, the children’s perspective and memories tell a different story. Each family member has his or her own issues and places a subtle or even subconscious blame on some else for any shortcomings or mistakes. When Abby and Red show signs of declining health and advancing age, the family is brought together under one roof—just the setting for old scores and new grudges to surface.
The roof itself, or actually the house beneath it, is also a main character of the story. Built by Red’s father Junior for another family, it was his best work and one that he coveted for years. His patience was rewarded when he was able to buy “his” house, just as his sister’s patience was rewarded when her friend’s fiancé became hers. Thus we see a chink in the Whitshank image…what they imagined as patience and reward would appear to an outsider as envy and manipulation.
While the first part of the story moves forward, the latter portion moves backward in time. Now we are able to learn more intimately how Whitshank relationships developed, for better or worse. No matter what past actions are exposed, Tyler still compels us to care about the characters, to understand and sympathize because after all aren’t they human, just like us? This American family, with its imperfections and prickly relationships, could be our family or the one next door.
Anne Tyler doesn’t try to impress with lofty language or literary gimmicks. She simply tells a story, and tells it well. Her characters are fully developed albeit often quirky or even eccentric. Her books are easy reads; you won’t need a dictionary and you’ll no doubt be sorry to reach the last page. No trilogies, sequels or prequels here—each of Tyler’s twenty novels are complete, independent stories. And they are timeless, not relying on current events or pop culture to move the plot. Pick up If Morning Ever Comes, published in 1964, and you’ll be easily immersed as if it were written last year.
I’ve never had the inclination nor the shelf space to keep every book I read, but I make the exception for Anne Tyler’s work. Her books sit on my shelf like old friends, each holding within its covers a gently woven story of ordinary lives and the family ties that bind or unravel over years. Apparently Anne Tyler has announced “A Spool of Blue Thread” to be her last novel; if that is true, the world will lose a master story teller. It will be hard to find an author that so perfectly spins extraordinary tales of ordinary lives.