Novel Readings

“In This House”: Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread

For years, they owned next to no furniture, having sunk every last penny into the down payment, but he refused to go out and buy just any old cheap stuff, no sir. ‘In this house, we insist on quality,’ he said. It was downright comical, the number of his sentences that started off with ‘In this house.’ In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even though the Whitshanks could not possibly have started out Episcopalians. So ‘this house’ really meant ‘this family,’ it seemed. The two were one and the same.

A Spool of Blue Thread is quintessential Anne Tyler: it’s exactly what you expect to get from one of her novels. If you like Anne Tyler’s novels, which I do, that’s a good thing, though I think there’s no getting around the potential objection that it’s also a sign of their (or her) limitations. Her novels are all more or less the same. They sound the same, they feel the same, they are about, essentially, the same things — especially families, in all their idiosyncratic variations, with all their friction and fondness and foibles. Not any families, though, and certainly not in any way every family. Tyler’s families are (again, more or less) all white middle-class families living in Baltimore, as if in deliberate adaptation of Jane Austen’s injunction that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.”

I don’t mean to diminish Tyler’s accomplishments. Austen, after all, used her stories about “three or four families in a country village” to do an awful lot, from minute moral analysis to pointed social commentary, and I think Tyler does some of the same things. It’s also true, as another famous writer said, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and Tyler’s families — though they aren’t universally unhappy or in any way tragic — always have a crack or two across the heart of their story that lets in just enough unease or dissatisfaction to generate tension and interest. That is certainly true of A Spool of Blue Thread, starting with the Whitshanks’ difficult son Denny (whose erratic comings and goings and enigmatic motivations disrupt his family’s routines) and including unhappy compromises, wounded feelings, and devastating losses.

A Spool of Blue Thread is chronologically wider-ranging than some of Tyler’s novels, which means it has a wider range of characters and some sense of being not just a personal story but also an American story — not as overtly as Smiley’s Some Luck and its sequels, with their relentless chronological march through American history, but still, we get a sense of people shaped by different eras, from the Depression through the Sixties and into the 21st century. I liked the novel’s structure, reaching back into the past and then back yet again, so that we first meet the characters and then learn more about how they came to be who they are, or to be with who they’re with (a process that turns out, in some cases, to be much more fraught than the cherished family stories reveal).

I liked, too, the way the family’s stories are organized around the house that Junior Whitshank built and then finagled away from its original owners. As new generations are born, the house is both a place for them to live and a symbol of their history and identity — but just as the house proves to need constant attention, so too a family is a structure that needs maintenance and may over time show small but irreparable signs of wear. Tyler is adept at the nuances of fretful disappointment:

Junior got his house, but it didn’t seem to make him as happy as you might expect, and he had often been seen contemplating it with a puzzled, forlorn sort of look on his face. He spent the rest of his life fidgeting with it, altering it, adding closets, resetting flagstones, as if he hoped that achieving the perfect abode would finally open the hearts of those neighbors who never acknowledged him. Neighbors whom he didn’t even like, as it turned out.

Life, like houses, doesn’t always give you what you expected, or wanted, or needed; happiness is never guaranteed in Tyler’s world. Just as for the Whitshanks, “the disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice,” however, failures aren’t necessarily the defining features of anyone’s story, and Tyler doesn’t ever let them dominate hers. She is equally good at showing the compensatory grace that comes with forgiveness and reconciliation, for one thing: in her books, people may leave, but (even after death) they almost always come home again, including in my own personal favorite, Ladder of Years.

I think that’s what, for me, makes Tyler an author whose new books I always seek out, in spite of (or maybe because of) the strong family resemblances between them. They are all books about people coming to terms with life, which is, after all, what most of us are doing ourselves, most of the time — and the wry, resigned tenderness of her storytelling seems to me a model for how we ought to approach both ourselves and others: with honesty, but also with kindness and humor.