Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, the seventh book I’ve read for the WoMan Booker Shadow Panel, got off to an inauspicious start when I took an instantaneous dislike to the snobby Whitshank family at its heart. It’s not that I don’t enjoy books about unlikable people, but I dislike it when an author seems to be unaware that her creations are entirely insufferable–and the Whitshanks, especially matriarch Abby Whitshank, are. Anyone who isn’t “their sort” is held up for scorn or, perhaps worse, their pity. Their efforts to be nice seem like a show, and appearances are given a high priority.
Thank goodness for the second chapter, where Tyler steps in and teaches her readers how to understand this book and this family:
But like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills. Calling in a repairman—even one of their own employees—was looked upon as a sign of defeat. All of them had inherited Junior’s allergy to ostentation, and all of them were convinced that they had better taste than the rest of the world. At times they made a little too much of the family quirks—of both Amanda and Jeannie marrying men named Hugh, for instance, so that their husbands were referred to as “Amanda’s Hugh” and “Jeannie’s Hugh”; or their genetic predisposition for lying awake two hours in the middle of every night; or their uncanny ability to keep their dogs alive for eons. With the exception of Amanda they paid far too little attention to what clothes they put on in the morning, and yet they fiercely disapproved of any adult they saw wearing blue jeans.
As it turns out, the project of this book is to poke holes in the family’s own view of itself—to reveal a history that is not what most would expect and to show that the future is less certain that anyone would imagine. It is, at times, a quirky book, and the Whitshanks never become entirely likable, but as we get to dig past those appearances, they become more interesting and easier to sympathize with.
The book’s present-day storyline deals with the Red and Abby Whitshank and their relationship with their adult children, three of whom reside near them in Baltimore and one of whom is more of a free spirit, losing touch with the family for months and months as he wanders the country trying out one life after another. The book also travels back in time, to Red and Abby’s youth and to the early years of Red’s parents’ marriage. Some of the stories revealed in these flashbacks are ones the family loves to tell, but others are buried in the minds of those who’ve died, leaving behind a legend instead of the more complicated and compelling truth.
This is only the second book I’ve ever read by Anne Tyler. My first attempt at reading her was close to 20 years ago, when I read and didn’t much like Breathing Lessons. I’ve come to suspect that her books are less easily appreciated by the young, so I’d been thinking I might revisit her, and I did like this better than I remember liking Breathing Lessons. It’s a book that goes down easily and is more subtle than it appears at first glance. I’d not put Tyler on my must-read author list on the strength of this book, but I’d certainly consider reading her again.
As far as the Booker goes, this book lands with the other middlers—The Moor’s Account and The Illuminations. It’s a book I enjoyed and am glad to have read, but I wouldn’t consider it worthy of a major prize. However, of the three, it’s the one I’d favor most for the prize, mostly because I appreciated the gradual tearing down of the family mythology. It was aiming for something more sophisticated than The Moor’s Account and was more successful in achieving its aim than The Illuminations.