The Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Tyler treads familiar ground with her 20th novel: the importance of complex family relationships and the struggles by parents and siblings alike to assert their individualities within a shared existence. And, like so many of her earlier stories, A Spool of Blue Thread is set in Baltimore.
A leafy Baltimore suburb is home to the Whitshank family in a large, sprawling house built by Junior Whitshank in the late 1930s. Now, daughter-in-law and ex-social worker Abby rules the roost with an excess of love, energy and irrepressible enthusiasm as she (s)mothers her husband Red and four adult children – even if they have long moved out, married and had children of their own. Or at least three have.
The eldest boy, Denny, is proving to be something of an enigma to Abby and Red. Having dropped out of college, he has adopted an itinerant lifestyle and only occasionally contacts members of the family. Most of the time the Whitshanks have no idea where Denny may be.
A Spool of Blue Thread is a chronicle of the Whitshanks family life told over three generations in four sections. There is little reflection on times past per se – Tyler choses to bookend the present day family story whilst telling Abby and Red’s 1959 courtship and the meeting of Junior and Linnie Mae in the 1930s separately. Family fortunes and misfortunes, jealousies petty or otherwise, death, illness, sadness, joy, changes and constancy all inevitably form part of the Whitshank history. And there’s certainly a twist or two.
But A Spool of Blue Thread is all a bit too hollow, too cutesy and homely as apple pie. Anne Tyler has a reputation for her characterisation yet none of the contemporary Whitshanks are particularly interesting – due in part to the fact that most of them are only walk-on characters. The one-dimensional eldest siblings Amanda and Jeannie are present but have little presence: their husbands – both named Hugh – and children even less so. Denny is the black sheep of the family – but he remains an enigma to us all. As a character portrayal, A Spool of Blue Thread fails badly
Ultimately, it’s wane and tedious. The so-called courtship of Junior and Linnie Mae is diverting enough and Tyler captures the mores of the time beautifully. But overall I just didn’t care enough about any of the characters and this oh-so-white existence in its Baltimore bubble. I’m not looking for melodrama, a breathless narrative or even an overtly political statement, but a little grit here and there would not go amiss. But then that’s not Tyler’s style.
A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted for the 2015 Mann Booker Prize but it (thankfully) lost out to Marlon James and A Brief History of Seven Killings.