>Words like “again” and “another” abound in reviews of Anne Tyler novels, largely because she returns to familiar subjects and themes in her work. In her 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf), Tyler proves that it is possible to breathe new life into old motifs once again. In Spool, Tyler details the darkly funny, cringe-inducing dynamics of the Whitshanks, a family living outside of Baltimore in 1994.
Tyler stresses the genericness of the family, emphasizing that there is “nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks.” Abby Whitshank, the matriarch, is a hovering, tireless mother the likes of which we’ve seen in Tyler’s earlier work — think Maggie in Breathing Lessons. Red, Abby’s husband, has his own construction business, and relies on logic and pragmatism to solve all his problems. They have four children, three of whom are settled and, frankly, boring, and one, Denny, who’s a misfit, a mystery, and likes to call people “boring."
The most moving and resonant passages of the novel are Tyler’s explorations of the internal life of the aging Abby, who looks back on her life as a mother with both fondness and grief. She longs for the days when she was the center of the family and could act as everyone’s confidante — now she feels completely “unnecessary.” Abby’s memory is starting to fail her, and there are little gaps where she can’t remember details of stories she once knew by heart.
After a (not surprising) death in the family, the family’s reunion allows each member a chance to play their part in the drama. Tyler depicts the struggles to care for aging parents tenderly: the competent, controlling daughters clean up the messes (why is this always the case?) while the brothers, Stem, who moves in to take care of Abby, and Denny, seem to have nothing in common, except that Denny is bitter about Stem's inheritance of Red's business. In a family with four kids, who makes the decisions about caring for those who once cared for you?
Can a novelist who’s written on Baltimore families time and again deliver a fresh take on what it means to love and be loved by your clan?
In the second half of the novel, Tyler explores the stories that are the foundation of the Whitshanks’ collective memory. The familial lore that threads the family together is not one solid cord; it’s made up of many teeny threads, each separate but part of a whole. Likewise, each member of the Whitshank clan has their stuff: their needs, their faults, their version of the story.
Tyler’s latest novel is like one fiber selected from a thick rope: unique and strong, and part of a whole body of impressive work that centers on subjects familiar to us all. Can a novelist who’s written on Baltimore families time and again deliver a fresh take on what it means to love and be loved by your clan? Yes, Tyler proves; this novel is as clever and compelling as her best work. Spool is a comforting read, a chronicle of family life that sheds light on what we all need and how we may think alone, but we have to live together.