Anne Tyler’s latest novel tells the story of the Whitshank family. The book begins in 1994 with Abby and Red receiving a phone call from their son, Denny, who tells Red he’s gay. We soon discover this is one of many things Denny will say and do for which his only motivation might be annoying his parents.
“How would I know where he was calling from? He doesn’t have a fixed address, hasn’t been in touch all summer, already changed jobs twice that we know of and probably more that we don’t know of…A nineteen-year-old boy and we have no idea what part of the planet he’s on! You’ve got to wonder what’s wrong there!”
A page later, Red’s reminding Abby that Denny got a girl pregnant before he left school and bemoaning the day he married Abby, the social worker.
Denny’s the third of four children – Amanda and Jeannie are his older sisters and Stem his younger brother.
He was far more generous, for instance, than the other three put together. (He traded his new bike for a kitten when Jeannie’s beloved cat died.) And he didn’t bully other children, or throw tantrums. But he was so close-mouthed. He had these spells of unexplained obstinacy, where his face would grow set and pinched and no one could get through to him. It seemed to be a kind of inward tantrum; it seemed his anger turned in upon itself and hardened him or froze him.
The first chapter of the book is a potted history of Denny’s life, we are told about his many failures and few successes and how Abby and Red feel about their son. But this is not a book about Denny – although he does bookend the novel – it’s a book about the whole family and the second chapter takes us back to Red’s father, Junior, and the house he built.
By chapter three we’re in 2012 and Abby begins to disappear. Not just physically but also from conversations taking place when she’s present. Red stops attending to the house he’s always loved and their children begin to wonder whether it’s time for them to move somewhere else. When they refuse, Stem and his wife Nora move in.
What Tyler does so well here is show the tensions between the parents and the children who’ve invaded their house – particularly between Abby and her daughter-in-law, Nora – and between the siblings who each think they should be responsible for their parents’ welfare, particularly Denny, who reappears.
The novel then moves backwards in time; firstly to Abby and Red’s courtship and then back further to Red’s father, Junior, and how he met and eventually married Red’s mother, Linnie Mae.
Linnie Mae’s a particularly great character, seemingly a bit of a simple country girl, she manipulates situations to her satisfaction, those around her only realising what she’s done when it’s far too late to respond.
There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence. And in looks, they were no more than average…But like most families, they imagined they were special.
Anne Tyler’s speciality is making ordinary people seem special. She highlights those moments that seem to be generic family happenings – fights between grown siblings that come from seething tensions and then seem embarrassing moments after they’ve happened; antagonism between parents and children at various stages of their lives; the changes in relationships as people age and situations change. A Spool of Blue Thread is classic Tyler.
Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.