Magazine article The Christian Century

A Spool of Blue Thread

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Spool of Blue Thread

Article excerpt

A Spool of Blue Thread

By Anne Tyler

Knopf, 368 pp., $25.95

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Anne Tyler's 20th novel is, like her previous 19, about a mildly dysfunctional Baltimore family of loyal yet infuriating people who love one another, but not always helpfully. It is about youth and age, parents and children, brothers and sisters, ambitions and disappointments. It is about four generations of the Whitshank family and the house they inhabit for some 70 years. Most of all it is about home.

In the opening scene, Red Whitshank is on the phone with his third child and elder son, Denny, who has just announced that he is gay. A few weeks later Red and his wife, Abby, learn--not from Denny--that he has withdrawn from college.

   Denny ... had withdrawn from the family years ago. What
   other middle-class American teenager lived the way he
   did--flitting around the country like a vagrant, completely
   out of his parents' control, getting in touch just sporadically
   and neglecting whenever possible to give them any means
   of getting in touch with him? How had things come to such
   a pass? They certainly hadn't allowed the other children to
   behave this way. Red and Abby looked at each other for a
   long, despairing moment.

Fast forward a couple of decades. The other children still live close to home. Amanda is an attorney; Jeanne and Stem work in their father's construction business. All three are married with children. Denny, on the other hand, has had a succession of short-lived jobs. Apparently not gay after all-- his parents can't bring themselves to inquire--he has a failed marriage and a daughter who only occasionally joins family get-togethers in Baltimore. Red and Abby are still fretting about him.

And then the family dynamics begin to shift. Red, now in his midseventies, has a heart attack. His hearing deteriorates. Abby sometimes blanks out. She starts calling the dog Clarence after a dog that died long ago. At one point she wanders outside in her nightgown and gets lost. The children aren't sure how to respond: after all, "Abby's 'usual' was fairly scatty. Who could say how much of this behavior was simply Abby being Abby?"

Yet clearly something is amiss, and something must be done. Should Abby and Red downsize? Should they hire help with their daily tasks? Should one of the children move in with them--and if so, which one? And is anybody paying attention to what Abby and Red themselves want?

The caregiving dilemma allows festering resentments to surface. The long-standing push-pull relationship between Abby, "so intrusive, so sure of her welcome, so utterly lacking in self-consciousness," and Denny, her beloved but baffling prodigal son, has set the stage for intense sibling rivalry to erupt whenever major decisions must be made. Over and over, the two older sisters and the younger brother wonder: Why, when we have stayed nearby and minded the family business, does Denny get all the attention? Why does nobody kill a fatted calf for us? At the same time Denny feels unwanted and disrespected, not only by his siblings but also by his parents. And then tragedy strikes.

A Spool of Blue Thread could have been a novel about the trials of the sandwich generation or the loneliness of old age. …

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