A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD, by Anne Tyler. Alfred A. Knopf, 358 pp., $25.95.
It's been a long time since I read a book I wished would not end, purposely slowing my progress to save a bit for later. Anne Tyler's 20th novel, "A Spool of Blue Thread," was that kind of book, though its unusual structure shoos the reader out the door at the end with grace.
In the first of four sections, we meet three generations of the Whitshank family, a clan of upwardly mobile Baltimoreans. The patriarch, Junior Whitshank, was a contractor who built a house he loved so much, he managed to edge the rich owners out and live there himself, though he and his country bumpkin wife never quite fit in to the neighborhood. His son, Red, lived there after him, raising four children, while daughter Merrick stole her best friend's rich fiance and transferred to even fancier environs.
"There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks," Tyler explains. "But like most families, they imagined they were special." From the amusing paragraphs of support Tyler gives for this assertion: "At times they made a little too much of the family quirks -- of both Amanda and Jeannie marrying men named Hugh, for instance, so that their husbands were referred to as 'Amanda's Hugh' and 'Jeannie's Hugh'; or their genetic predisposition for lying awake two hours in the middle of every night; or their uncanny ability to keep their dogs alive for eons . . . They liked to say that they didn't care for sweets, although there was some evidence that they weren't as averse as they claimed."
The central figure is Red's wife, Abby. Though beloved, she is a "dreadful embarrassment" to her children. "During visits from their friends, for instance, she might charge into the room declaiming a poem she'd just written. She might buttonhole the mailman to let him know why she believed in reincarnation. ('Mozart' was the reason she gave. How could you hear a composition from Mozart's childhood and not feel sure that he had been drawing on several lifetimes' worth of experience?) Encountering anyone with even a hint of a foreign accent, she would seize his hand and gaze into his eyes and say, 'Tell me. Where is home, for you?' "
"Abby's orphans," as her family calls the series of strangers she invites for Sunday dinners and Thanksgiving, are sometimes ungrateful and obtuse, and these days Abby doesn't always recall meeting them. In her early seventies, Abby is starting to lose it. She's been wandering out of the house and getting lost, and she keeps calling the dog Clarence, though she occasionally insists she knows it's Brenda. Then Red, who's still going to work every day, has a heart attack. When the pair of them reject the live-in helper their children hire, two of the kids move home -- the prodigal son, Denny, who's been away for years, and the adopted son, Stem, who works for Red and comes with a prissy, beautiful wife and their small boys. Denny and Stem's clash provides a twist of seething sourness from which the generally sweet narrative benefits.
Though the present action mostly concludes in the first part of the book, Tyler doesn't rudely kick you out at that point. The shorter second and third sections reveal the truth behind the family's romantic myths -- the love stories of Red and Linnie and of Abby and Red. The final section returns very briefly to 2012. So the momentum of the narrative is created as much by peeking into the past as by moving ahead chronologically, and it's a treat to spend more time with characters who have been killed off.
One chapter of "A Spool of Blue Thread" describes the Whitshanks' annual trip to the beach. They rent the same house every year, next to another family who rents at the same time. They have never exchanged a word with this family, though they feel great warmth for them, watching tenderly as children become parents, boyfriends become husbands, and old ones fail to return.
" 'You sure have given these folks a lot of thought,' " comments Jeannie's Hugh, who's a good-looking bonehead.
" 'Well, they're us, in a way,' " Jeannie replies.
This seems an ideal metaphor for the reader's relationship to the Whitshanks. Although my own family could hardly be more different from theirs, I feel as Jeannie does. The Whitshanks are us, in a way, and this makes them endlessly interesting to watch, as well as very touching. I was sad when we parted ways.