SECOND OPINION: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Review published on April 3, 2016.

Anne Tyler, Pulitzer prize winner, is back with her 20th novel, a comforting and sometimes eccentric tale of the Whitshank family. Like her previous novels, this one deals with the trials and tribulations of an American family. Despite the recurrent themes, Tyler masterfully and sharply etches out all her characters.

The novel paints a vivid portrait of the family across three generations. The core motif revolves around Red Whitshank, son of Junior Whitshank, and his wife Abby Whitshank and how successfully (or sometimes clumsily) they grapple with their impending old age and their four, grown children.

Denny, their youngest son, is the black sheep of the family who masterfully manipulates his parents concern and love for him. His problem is that he refuses to grow up and behaves on impulsive urges. He changes jobs frequently, is almost always out of money and a place to live, and treats his parents’ house as a motel. He comes and goes as he pleases, without giving two hoots about his parents’ fears for him. Despite being his parents’ Achilles heel, he is the one who holds the bulk of his parents’ attention, a fact that does not go unnoticed by his siblings. A poignant passage depicts how Denny’s absence at the family’s annual beach holiday and every family member’s secret hope that he might turn up at the last moment, subdues the entire holiday vibe. Insightful passages like these make the Whitshanks family seem familiar and relatable, since all of us have had experiences similar to these, with our families.

Tyler also deftly illustrates the experiences of old age and how perplexing it can be for an elderly person to hold on to his former, livelier nature while adapting to diminishing mental and bodily health. Abby, who used to be a social worker is a ‘fixer’ – she loves doting on people and her sympathetic nature means that she will go to any lengths to alleviate their suffering. At 72, she starts experiencing episodes, sporadic moments of absent-mindedness where she loses track of her whereabouts and wanders off from home. Red is also coming to terms with his deteriorating health but refuses to acknowledge it, until he suffers a heart attack.

The novel deals with how children of elderly parents, who are well-settled with their own families, deal with the adversities of their parents’ old age. In a skilfully written passage, Abby muses over how so many people treat old folks as doddery, old fools without realizing that they are also people, and not just a shadow of their former self.

One of the key focal points of the novel is the family house on Bouton Road. In its context, we are introduced to three generations of Whitshanks family. Red’s father built the house with almost religious reverence and it’s passed on to Red as the only family heirloom. It is described as “comfortably shabby air of a place whose inhabitants had long stopped seeing it”. Tyler uses the house as a literary tool to jump back and forth, from 1950s to present, in the narrative.

The writing, even when gloomy, is laced with repressed humour and wit. Even though there are no big climax or intense dramatic scenes, the narrative is crisp enough for the reader to not lose interest.  ‘A Spool of blue Thread’ is an endearing tale of family and relationships, with their odd moments of eccentricities, quirks and compassion.

Rabeea Saleem
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A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

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