You don't read Anne Tyler to have your worldview expanded, or to be kept awake at night anxiously turning pages. You read, instead, for the cozy mildness, the comfort of sinking into each new warmhearted, gently wry book.
A Spool of Blue Thread, Tyler's 20th novel, wears its domesticity proudly on its sleeve (or make that jacket). Once again, her focus is on the relationships between various members of a Baltimore family — spouses, parents and children, siblings and in-laws — as they evolve over the long haul. And family life is always a long haul in Tyler's novels. Now in her 70s, time and its inexorable ravages have become more central to her work, pushing aside her earlier preoccupations with living the wrong life, or with the rub between the benefits of intimacy and the desire for freedom.
"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," Tyler writes of her latest characters. The Whitshanks still run the Baltimore construction company started in the 1930s by the family patriarch, and they still live in the lovely house with a full front porch he built in an upscale Baltimore neighborhood in 1936. But, she comments drolly, "like most families, they imagined they were special," priding themselves on quirks such as an "uncanny ability to keep their dogs alive for eons," and their shared fierce disapproval "of any adult they saw wearing jeans."
In their early 70s, Abby and Red Whitshank, married for 48 years, are beginning to alarm their four grown children. Abby, a social worker, has been experiencing odd "blank spells," little hiccups in time that leave her disoriented. Red, who still works at the family business with a daughter and son, is increasingly hard of hearing and — most uncharacteristically — has been letting the house go.
On one level, Blue Thread is a love song to this house. It's the locus and symbol of the Whitshanks' connection. Although it was originally commissioned for a wealthy client, Red's father, Junior, poured his heart and soul into it — and finally managed to make it his own a few years later. The house is lovingly described, and like Tyler's novels, it's well-built, homey and unpretentious, "a house you might see pictured on a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, plain-faced and comfortable, with the Stars and Stripes, perhaps, flying out front and a lemonade stand at the curb."
So we understand Red and Abby's reluctance to move on. And we understand — sort of — their children's willingness to upend their lives to take care of them in situ, though it seems like premature overkill. Of course, grown children moving back into the family homestead is a recipe for the sort of friction that drives fiction. The setup here is almost too perfect, involving a clash between the wayward ne'er-do-well black sheep of the family and the do-no-wrong goody-goody with a fundamentalist, unflappably angelic wife. Readers might recognize echoes of the good versus not-so-good dynamic from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, still Tyler's best book.
Similarly, readers will recognize other Tyler leitmotifs, including sudden tragedy as a catalyst for change. The novel's expansive sense of time brings to mind not just Tyler's The Amateur Marriage, but Alice McDermott's Someone and Jane Smiley's Some Luck. Grief and de-accessioning, central in The Beginner's Goodbye and Noah's Compass, again feature prominently. Fortunately, Tyler shakes things up a little, avoiding too much predictability by jumping around in time between the 1930s and the current decade, occasionally overturning what we thought we knew about various characters.
Throughout, Tyler's references are unabashedly domestic. Abby loves to describe the day she fell in love with Red: "It was the prettiest afternoon, all breezy and yellow-green with a sky the unreal blue of a Noxzema jar." The image made me wonder whether readers in their 20s — assuming Tyler has readers in their 20s — would remember the distinctive cobalt-blue glass of old Noxzema jars.
Readers of any age should have no trouble relating to Abby's complaint that "the trouble with dying ... is that you don't get to see how everything turns out. You won't know the ending." Her daughter protests, "But, Mom, there is no ending." To which Abby replies, "Well, I know that." And then Tyler adds the unspoken kicker her fans have come to look for: "In theory." We can only hope that Tyler will continue spooling out her colorful Baltimore tales for a long time to come.