Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread

Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Date of Publication: February 10, 2015
Pages: 368 (NOOK Edition)

    There is a short list of authors whom I feel compelled to read every time they publish a new work.   Anne Tyler is on top of that list.  Her books have entertained and amazed me for many years.  All of her books are exquisitely written and cleverly plotted.  Each contains a cast of recognizable characters drawn from everyday life who are often thrown into some extraordinary circumstance.   This book is no different.  

     A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of the Whitshank family of Baltimore.  Red Whitshank is an old-school general contractor who fusses over details and lives in a rambling old home with a huge front porch which was originally built by his father.  He and his wife Abby raise four children: two daughters, a biological and an adopted son.   The two girls, Amanda and Jeannie take circuitous routes to adulthood, eventually settling into happy marriages.  Stem, the adopted son, is the steady one who eventually takes over Red's construction business.  Denny is the worrisome, prodigal son.  He disappears for long stretches, is easily alienated by his seemingly well-meaning parents and is the main source of conflict between and among family members.

      Even though much of the book focuses on developing the characters of the Whitshank children, this is really Red and Abby's story.  The book even takes a serious detour about three quarters of the way in to refocus on how Red and Abby met in North Carolina, became separated and eventually reunited in Baltimore.  All of the Whitshank back story is really preparing the reader for the main issue: how everyone reacts to Red's physical decline and Abby's dementia.  This is a poignant description of a family in crisis as it deals with the inevitability of aging.  Anne Tyler treats this issue with her usual grace and sensitivity.

     This book is filled with dexterous writing.   One night  Denny arrives home unexpectedly and the family gathers around the next morning to see how he is:

"He was wearing pain-stained khakis and a String Cheese Incident T-shirt, and his hair was very shaggy, fringing the tops of his ears.  (As a rule the men in the family were fanatic about keeping their hair short.)  He seemed healthy, though, and cheerful."

     Anne Tyler is also a master at scene creation, making settings come alive.  Here she describes the Whitshank home:

"Every ground-floor room but the kitchen had double pocket doors, and above each door was a fretwork transom for the air to circulate in the summer.  The windows were fitted so tightly that not even the fiercest winter storm could cause them to rattle.  The second-floor hall had a chamfered railing that pivoted neatly at the stairs before descending to the entrance hall.  All the floors were aged chestnut.  All the hardware was solid brass - doorknobs, cabinet knobs, even the two-pronged hooks meant to anchor the cords of the navy-blue linen window shades that were brought down from the attic every spring.  A ceiling fan with wooden blades hung in each room upstairs and down, and out on the porch there were three.  The fan above the entrance hall had a six-and-a-half-foot wingspan."

     Some reviewers have criticized this book for having "typical" and predictable Anne Tyler characters.  Others have claimed that she has recycled tired themes from her previous books (most particularly from Breathing Lessons and An Amateur Marriage).  While some of this criticism is valid, an Anne Tyler book is still a cut above the competition.  Read this for the quality of the writing and the delightful (if maybe hackneyed) characters.  You will be glad that you did.

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