A Spool of Blue Thread, the latest — and, quite possibly, final — novel of Anne Tyler’s long, acclaimed career, feels like a book that devotees already know well.
It presents the story of the Whitshank family, specifically Red, his wife Abby and their mixed brood of children and grandchildren.
Red, a stoic, grumpy type, runs a construction firm; Abby, a typically masterful Tyler creation, is eccentric and entirely loveable, a busybody whose intent is always to mother, nurture and do good.
She writes shoebox poems and opens her home to waifs and strays, ex-soldiers struggling to readjust, homesick foreign students.
She and Red are a happy couple, getting old and coping as best they can — or simply denying — the crumbling edges: a heart scare and worsening deafness for Red, an increasingly dreamy forgetfulness for Abby.
These are the usual life problems; their bigger troubles tend to revolve around their wayward son, Denny.
As a clan with an unremarkable history that stretches back only to Red’s father, Junior, a Depression-era master carpenter who came (it is believed, or assumed because of an accent) from Appalachia, and who built, fell in love with, sold and then somehow schemed his way into buying the Bouton Road house of his dreams, the Whitshanks hoard and sanctify the few stories that have shaped them as a unit.
Now, though, with the situation in the home becoming more difficult, Stem, the good son (adopted and absorbed into the family as a toddler), announces that he’ll move in with his wife and kids in order to keep the boat afloat.
Almost inevitably, the always unreliable Denny, who is given to mood swings that take him out of the picture for years at a stretch, takes umbrage.
Anne Tyler published her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes in 1964, at the tender age of 22. By the mid-1970s, starting with Celestial Navigations she had really found her voice, but it was with her astonishing run of 1980s novels, Morgan’s Passing, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, that she established herself as one of America’s finest novelists, the equal of any in the game.
Set alongside the bombastic muscularity of writers like Updike, Mailer, Morrison and Roth, her books seemed soft-spoken and homespun, shy reflections of small lives lived at a gentle, unspectacular pitch.
Some critics accused her of a tendency towards the saccharine, and of lacking scope, but at her best, she was and remains an exquisite writer, hypnotic in her storytelling, her novels structured with such cohesion that characters, plot and setting exist in perfect balance.
Her dialogue is soft comedy often rich in pathos, and her language has the measured beat of music, never intruding on the story and revealing its majesty as a cumulative effect.
Twenty novels in, and her fans know what to expect. A Baltimore, Maryland setting, the shining middle-class side of a town worlds removed from the one depicted in the hit television series, The Wire; a plot that revolves invariably around a close-knit but sweetly dysfunctional family; a cast of beautifully drawn and often off-beat characters.
Miss Tyler, knowing her strengths, focuses on mining the quiet drama of ordinary lives, and no writer has proven more adept at finding the miraculous within the mundane.
As usual with her, the smallness of the story is a trick of the light; this is a novel that addresses such big themes as ageing, sibling rivalry, familial connections and the essence and mistreatment of love.
A Spool of Blue Thread isn’t her best work, but it might be her best in decades.