A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler
Finished: May 31, 2020
Image from Amazon
A long time friend – Dianne – made me the most beautiful mask last week. She dyed the material herself and used a great pattern: no elastic loops to irritate the ears and no strands to tie into a bow at the back of my head and catch my ever- lengthening hair. We had a FaceTime chat so I could thank her and she could tell me how to get the best fit. Naturally, given the times we are in, we chatted about family and how hard the social distancing can be – especially on those who live alone. She lost her mother last year and her father has been especially lonely this winter and spring. We agreed that we were lucky that we were fortunate to be married – not to each other! – so we can have close human contact through this COVID-19 ordeal.
After my conversation with Diane it dawned on me that family – for better or worse – is the underlying current of Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread”. The novel covers three generations of the Whitshank family. As the story opens, Red answers the phone as he and Abby are getting ready for bed. It is a call from their exasperating, worrying, and wayward son Denny. The conversation is short and Abby is frustrated with Red for the abruptness of the interchange. They go to bed angry.
“Now, hon,” he told her. “We’ll hear from him. I promise.” And he reached for her and drew her close, settling her head on his shoulder. They lay like that for some time, until gradually Abby stopped fidgeting and her breaths grew slow and even. [p 11]
Red and Abby are the middle of a three generation story; Denny, their son, Stem and daughters – Amanda and Jeannie – are the third generation; Red’s father, Junior, mother, Linnie Mae, comprise the first generation. As we trace Abby and Red aging we get an intimate view of the complex relationships between the family members. Denny feels like he never got his parents’ attention, while his siblings are frustrated that he sucked up all the family energy worrying about him.
Later in the story we see Junior and Linnie in a parallel scene to Abby and Red’s that started the novel. They are laying in bed at the end of a big fight. As much as Junior feels trapped by Linnie he still depends on her acceptance and touch.
“Linnie Mae,” he said toward the ceiling. “Are you awake?”
He turned so his body was cupping hers and he wrapped his arms around her from behind. She didn’t pull away, but she stayed rigid. He took a deep breath of her salty, smoky smell.
“I ask your pardon,” he said.
She was silent.
“I’m just trying so hard, Linnie. I guess I’m trying too hard. I’m just trying to pass muster. I just want to do things the right way, is all.”
“Why, Junior,” she said, and she turned toward him. “Junie, honey, of course you do. I know that. I know you, Junior Whitshank.” And she took his face between her hands.
In the dark he couldn’t see if she was looking at him or not, but he could feel her fingertips tracing his features before she put her lips to his. [p 435]
I really loved a chapter about Abby as the family is worried about her; she slips away one morning and her stream of consciousness about her family is lovely. Thinking of Denny she wonders:
One thing that parents of problem children never said aloud: it was a relief when the children turned out okay, but then what were the parents supposed to do with the anger they’d felt all those years? [p 204]
In a comment on my reading report on Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road , Marylee MacDonald notes that Anne Tyler “manages to capture the character’s inner and outer struggles so well.” Marylee is right about Anne Tyler; it is one of the things about Tyler’s writing which is so compelling. We see the internal/external struggles with Abby here, and later with Junior. But it occurs to me that we don’t get much of a look into Denny’s inner struggle. We infer it from his actions and the thoughts of his family members, but we have to settle for that tension.
I also love the section that describes how Junior and Linnie get together. Junior felt trapped by her but couldn’t break away.
He drew away and walked separate from her. He felt he was caught in strands of taffy: pull her off the fingers of one hand and then she was sticking to the other. [p 406]
As you may know, I’m a sucker for beautiful images, metaphors, and similes. Anne Tyler doesn’t disappoint.
- As Red and Abby’s daughter-in-law goes out for a walk with her son in a stroller: “They had set out with Nora several minutes ago—Sammy leaning forward in his stroller like a sea captain watching for landfall” [p 199]
- On a hot and humid Baltimore afternoon: “Outside, the air hit her face like a warm washcloth” [p 313]
As it began, the novel ends with Denny on a phone call. In both situations he has been estranged from a loved one but still reaches out. And there it is: Anne Tyler’s theme that ties her novels together. Humans crave connection despite the problems that come with it.