My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Anne Tyler’s books are never predictable – she creates characters that you love to love, but also those that you love to hate and those you cannot get any grip on at all. In A Spool of Blue Thread, among the Whitshanks, there are very few characters that you could even begin to love.
The family of Whitshanks (or Shitwanks as one of the sons’ friends rename them) live in a large house in Baltimore, with wooden steps and a wooden porch, lovingly built by their grandfather, the talented carpenter. They think they are special, but as Tyler writes, ‘There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks.’ A statement such as this, quite early on in a novel, about the subject matter of your book, is brave. No author usually wishes to tell her audience that the characters are unremarkable. But then Tyler has a strong career behind her, so she can afford be brave.
Tyler is also correct, there is nothing special about the Whitshank family. The long-suffering Abby, who as the family matriarch do-gooder puts up with her husband, Red’s stubbornness and her children’s selfishness is an annoyingly scatty-brained character. As well as looking after her four children, she fills her life with ‘misfits, loners and unfortunates’ for whom she holds what the family have dubbed, ‘orphan dinners’. But much like her family, these loners too, soon take advantage of her generosity.
There are four children, Amanda, Jeannie and the troubled Denny, plus Stem, the latecomer. When Red, who runs the family construction company falls ill, the grown-up children with families in tow all arrive at Abby and Red’s side, and although on the surface they seem concerned about their ageing parents, their old sibling rivalries soon begin to show.
Perhaps the characters were just too true to life, but I had difficulty in identifying with any of them. There are many funny moments in the book, and at the end, I felt great sadness, but I still don’t think this novel, which has just made the Booker short list, is Ann Tyler’s best work.