A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne Tyler

Published by Chatto & Windus UK,  Knopf US 10 February 2015

368pp, hardcover

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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Anchored by a majestic old house in Baltimore, Anne Tyler’s latest novel is a consummate three-generational family panorama. Black sheep, bossy aunts and sour patriarchs, class-crossing offspring, secrets, regrets, orphans, sibling rivalries, incipient dementia – the ingredients are far from unfamiliar yet are measured, weighed, balanced and stirred with the economy and light, assured touch of a master.

Quintessential twenty-first-century middle-class Americans, the Whitshank family derives originally from more working-class roots. But for decades now it has inhabited the beautiful house on Bouton Road originally and jealously built by Junior Whitshank for one of his customers. The novel’s initial focus is on Junior’s son Red, his wife Abby and the growth of their family of four children. Heartbreak and mystification, arguments and joys, inevitable changes and death twist and combine in their affecting multi-part history.

But then, within sight of an ending, the story swoops back to earlier years, first of all tracing the beginning of Abby’s involvement with Red, under the self-regarding gaze of Junior and his not-as-simple-as-she-seems country wife Linnie Mae. Then, as the story jumps again to an even earlier era, the Whitshank family origins, the underlying truths – the family’s foundation – are exposed. These events and their associated glimpses of an essential power struggle rebound on what the reader already knows to be the consequences, redefining everything that will follow historically.

Internal, external; objective, subjective – relationships are both fixed and wide open to interpretation, is the message of this sage, soft-spoken tale. Tyler and family go together like pancakes and maple syrup and this pleasing new book offers similarly flavorsome satisfactions.

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