The unremarkable Whitshanks

This is my review of A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.

Retired social worker Abby with her eccentric streak and strong sense of justice and her husband Red, owner of a small construction company in Baltimore, have raised four children and now welcome their grandchildren to the fine family house built by Red’s father Junior Whitshank, poor boy made good from the Appalachians, or thereabouts, who coveted it so much that he persuaded his wealthy clients to sell it to him, perhaps using some dubious means to achieve this end.

The opening seems promising, as Abby and Red conduct a Pinterish conversation over how to deal with wayward son Denny’s latest unsettling action: a nocturnal phone call to announce that he is gay. My enthusiasm cooled when nothing comes of this, and each chapter seems like a separate short story, or sequence of anecdotes, laden down with often tedious domestic detail, about what appear, apart from the prickly, often absent drifter Denny, to be an unremarkable middle—class American family with, frankly, no real problems. The twee, folksy style also grated on me, with the overuse of brackets and “house that Jack built” repetition. This may of course be intentional, to chime with the Whitshanks ordinary Americanness. Despite the humour which sets Anne Tyler apart from other celebrated modern writers like Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro, there was just not enough to hold my interest.

But then, mid-way through Chapter 3 in which the children feel obliged to rally round as Abby develops worrying memory lapses and Red, recovering from a heart attack, is deemed unable to cope with her, Anne Tyler hooks my interest by beginning to let slip a chain of unexpected twists to indicate that all is not as it seems. I even stopped being annoyed by the style, although I swear it sharpens up as the story belatedly takes off. We begin to see how, for all her good intentions, inviting needy and sadly often ghastly people to share family meals without consulting her long-suffering family, she has unwittingly damaged both the child that she loves the most, and the one she has insisted with apparent great generosity on helping. At last, I was able to appreciate the subtle observation of the characters who begin to become more distinct, the irony and moments of sadness beneath the comedy and the telling dialogues.

Anne Tyler takes a risk, which pays off, in giving us the essential story in Part 1, ending Chapter 8, as is often the case, on a note of pathos, only to go back in time to show how Abby met Red, when she was going out with his friend Dane, and how Junior came to marry Linnie Mae, who proves to be much more than the homely, downtrodden figure portrayed at the outset. The author even manages to make us feel a flash or two of sympathy for Junior. In beginning and ending with Denny, the story has a satisfying arc.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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