It's always felt to me that at the centre of Anne Tyler's novels about genteel middle class Baltimore life there is horrific fear. What if this life you've worked so hard for is something you wake up wanting to escape from? What if the people closest to you and the family you've known all your life turn out to be strangers? Tyler presents these insolvable dilemmas by following the daily life of her characters while also acknowledging the absurdity and uselessness of the questions. Of course there are a multitude of possibilities in life and we can't choose them all because we're caught in the unstoppable flow of time which necessarily limits the options we have. Even though we can spend our lives with people we're linked to by blood or marriage and we can know their habits, we cannot know what's truly in their hearts. In Tyler's fiction people can walk out the door one evening to become someone new or wake in the morning to see that their partner of forty years is someone they've always hated. It's this daily risk which makes the finely constructed domestic detail of her narratives both terrifying and thrilling.
In “A Spool of Blue Thread” she takes a new approach to this by writing a family saga which moves backwards through the generations. At the start we're introduced to the Whitshanks who live in the perfect suburban home. They have four adult children, but it's their third child Denny who is the wayward black sheep. He flashes in and out of family's life unable to settle. Unsurprisingly, it's the troubled child which gets the most attention and therefore draws resentment from his siblings. Tyler then shifts focus to the mother Abby. She writes about Abby and Red's uncomfortable transition from old age to elderly. The family rally together to decide how to care for their parents Red and Abby while still allowing them to maintain their independence. Finally the story moves back to the family's origin: Red's parents Junior and Linnie with their mysterious past. At the centre is the Whitshank family home, an idealized space built by Junior himself for a middle class family and gradually purchased for his own family. The home is passed through the generations as a symbol of self-creation, a quintessential American family who started with nothing and have formed a lineage with many branches.
This novel in triptych form reminds me of Gauguin's incredible painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? from the way it unpretentiously displays every stage of life and multiple generations. At the same time it quietly asks these fundamental questions about the nature of being. Tyler is also cleverly disentangling the myth of the idealized nuclear American family. On the surface, the Whitshanks give an impression of established stability. Yet, everything about them was acquired, if not exactly immorally, but on the sly. Junior schemed to purchase the family home from the Brills, the family he worked for. Red's sister Merrick connived to gain the wealthy husband her good friend intended to marry. A child who is suddenly made an orphan is taken into the Whitshank home and raised as one of their own without any formal adoption taking place. These are all things which the family have appropriated as aspirational accessories to present themselves to the world as who they want to be. The great tension in this novel is between becoming and being. Whether you have truly earned what's in your life or not, when do the people/things around you turn from a symbol of what you want to become into a fundamental part of who you are?
The impressive thing is how lightly Tyler addresses all these concerns in her writing. There is nothing ponderous about her narrative at all filling it with so much detail about the delicate balance of family relationship and the minutiae of daily life. She includes a good degree of humanity and humour into her prose. When recounting one of the two stories which are marked as vital to the family's oral history, Tyler writes of Junior: “In 1936, he fell in love with a house. No, first he must have fallen in love with his wife, because he was married by then.” This sort of wry observation has all the humorous qualities which you can recognize as characteristic of a tale endlessly retold over the dinner table. Only later in the novel does it take on a darker quality. There is a fine balance to the way the family narrates their own story in this novel and the facts of their history which are doled out by Tyler herself.
Many of Tyler's observations about her characters behaviour come across as true to life, things you can relate to yourself or things which you can recognize as similar to people you know. There is the odd occasion when she does slip. When describing in parentheses an example of one character's generosity of spirit she remarks: “(He traded his new bike for a kitten when Jeannie’s beloved cat died.)” It makes me wonder, what sort of transaction would estimate a bike as equivalent value to a kitten – animals which are notoriously given away for free when a family has a cat that's given birth? And even if a trade like this did take place what parent would allow their young boy to make it? Aside from some small quibbles I had at times, Tyler's characters come across as well-formed and relatable.
In this novel's best moments it has all the heft and pleasures of “To the Lighthouse.” Virginia Woolf was a writer who cherished the physical detail and small interactions of life because these tiny realities are the line of life. They add up to saying something substantial and meaningful about existence. “A Spool of Blue Thread” gives us a deep insight into the type of family you could live next door to. At the lake where the Whitshanks vacation every summer there is a family who rent a cabin adjacent to them. They see them every year, but never make contact. Instead they observe subtle changes about how the family grows and changes from a distance. The Whitshanks feel that their story is parallel to their own, but essentially unknown. Tyler's writing is about making that contact where polite society does not. In doing so, she shows all the passion and fear that is a part of every family life.