Family drama . . . now there’s something I have too much of. As such, Anne Tyler’s books have never enticed me much. I was therefore surprised to find myself immersed in her latest tale of a family so similar to my own, yet so strangely different. We are immediately introduced to Abby Whitshank, 70-year-old wife, mother, and social worker, who is starting to ‘lose time’. Her four children offer assistance, bringing their own burdens involving in-laws, grandchildren, parenting, grandparenting, and sibling rivalry, among a myriad of other complex relationship dynamics and taboos.
The first half of the book focuses on the immediate family dynamics of Abby and Red Whitshank and their four diverse children. The eldest, type-A headstrong Amanda, keeps all her siblings in line; Jeanine strives for peace and happiness; Denny is a wandering middle child. Youngest son Douglas, nicknamed Stem, has been adopted.
Readers peek into the marital lives of the children throughout Abby’s tale. I especially enjoyed Tyler’s naming both Whitshank girls’ husbands “Hugh”, subsequently calling them “Amanda’s Hugh” or “Jeanine’s Hugh”. Cleverly defining these husbands through their wives made me laugh. Unmarried Denny, referred to by his sister as the prodigal son, is the complicated, roaming soul of the family. Finally, Stem’s wife Nora is the perfect, silent in-law who floats above all, quietly helpful and agreeable. Tyler portrays the complexity of these marriages only briefly, yet gives enough clues to show clearly which characters we sympathize with.
In the second half of the novel, we are thrown into the past of Abby and Red’s first physical encounter. Their new love contrasts the lifelong emotional depth given to us in the first half of the book. Through this look backwards, Tyler introduces readers to Red’s parents, Linnie Mae and Junior Whitshank. While Abby is over on a “beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon”, the story flashes further back to the Depression to unveil how Linnie Mae and Junior’s union impacts the current day fabric of this intricate family. This backward unspooling of the family’s multigenerational story mirrors the unravelling of Abby’s memory.
As we’re finally pulled back into the present to conclude the Whitshank story, I anticipated a nice, pretty “tied-up-with-a bow” ending, but was pleasantly surprised by the real-life complexities haunting the characters all the way to the end. Having discovered this was Anne Tyler’s twentieth book across five decades, I want to go back and read everything she has ever written. I have been baptized as a member of the Whitshank family!
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Knopf | 9781101874271 | February 10, 2015)