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.
The book has also been reviewed by fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow jurors Eric and Paola. Click on their names to be taken to their review.
Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.
As you know I’m new to Tyler, but this & others of hers are high on my wishlist – I just love how she seemingly makes the ordinary into extraordinary & her observational skills, capturing the minutest of detail are sublime
She is very good at elevating everyday life and yes, it’s definitely to do with observing people’s behaviour. Have you read any Jane Smiley? She’s very good on the detail.
No, haven’t read any Jane Smiley… Which of hers would you recommend starting with?
I’m probably not the best person to ask – I haven’t read many of hers. A Thousand Acres seems to be the most popular, although the latest – Some Luck – is the beginning of a trilogy that looks to be superb.
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A little like Poppy, I’m drawn to what you say about Tyler’s ability to make ordinary people appear special and extraordinary – she seems to have an innate understanding of family relationships. This new one does sound very good.
Yes, I think she’s very good on family and marital relationships. I’m inclined to disagree with Tolstoy about unhappy families, I think Tyler shows there is some common ground.
So great to read your thoughts on this. I do like how Tyler makes you believe it could be a certain kind of novel with a son calling to claim he’s gay and then it turns out the novel is nothing to do with that. You’re right, she’s so good at writing about families and what makes them special. Linnie Mae is a particularly good character and it’s interesting how we never actually get her point of view but get a sense of her sly intelligence from the perspectives of Abby & Junior. The novel does have such a greater emotional effect climbing backward through the generations giving a sense of tragedy and deeper appreciation for the characters.
Thanks Eric. Oh I loved Linnie Mae and yes, Tyler’s choices about how to present her were very cleverly made. I hadn’t thought about the structure in that way but you’re absolutely right, it’s so much more powerful backwards than it would be chronological.
Good to read your reivew. I love Annes Tyler gentle but insightful writing and A Pool of Blue Thread is high on my reading list for this year.
Thank you. Hope you enjoy it.
I’ve never read an Anne Tyler book, and I know I should, as she’s so revered by, well, everyone…I always got the impression that not a lot really happens in them, but her writing is fantastic. I must read her. Where would you suggest I start, Naomi?
Yes, they appear as though not much happens but all of life is there, I think. I always recommend the place I started which is Ladder of Years, it’s about a woman who walks out on her family one day and the consequences she has to deal with as a result.
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For some unknown reason I’ve never read any of her books but will definitely have add this to my tbr pile.
I’ve yet to read this one, but I would love to sink into an entire stack of Anne Tyler’s novels (I’ve read them spottily throughout her career); I think she does what she does SO well.
I would agree. Some absolute gems in that stack.
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