A Spool of Blue Thread

Written by Anne Tyler
Review by Helene Williams

Tyler’s latest novel is filled with what readers have come to expect and love from her: a frank dissection of a family, with all its joys and pain.

The Whitshank family has been in Baltimore since 1926, when “Junior” Whitshank landed in town. The current generation, headed up by Red Whitshank and his wife Abby, live in a house Junior built and loved; Red and two of his children run the construction firm started by Junior. Abby is a social worker, both on the job and at home. She’s been bringing home “strays” for years, and one never knows what social misfit will be joining the family for dinner. Her pet project, though, is her oldest son, Denny, a wayward, unfathomable young man who flits in and out of his family’s lives. Even Abby’s solid Earth Mother presence can’t penetrate Denny’s laissez-faire façade, and the emotional capital she spends on trying to understand him leaves her little energy to deal with her other children.

Tyler provides snapshots of the generations, letting the reader in on secrets that even the closest of the characters don’t share with each other. Some of the most notable scenes take place in a small Southern town in the 1920s, and others in Baltimore during the Depression and in the 1950s. A large part of the story occurs in the present day, and reveals that the house and the neighborhood have matured and aged along with the Whitshank family. Throughout, the house remains the anchor, both supporting and restraining the Whitshanks as they try to make their individual ways in the world. Tyler once again gives us a family who might live on our own block, and provides insight into the drama that permeates even the most seemingly “normal” lives.