Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Anne Tyler has always liked to write about what, at first glance, seems ordinary. In her twentieth, and quite possibly her last novel, Tyler once again writes about the ups and downs of family life.
In A Spool of Blue Thread, Tyler follows three generations of the Whitshank family, beginning in the 1930s. Grandfather Whitshank starts a construction company, and builds a house for a client on a leafy Baltimore street. In love with his craftsmanship, and with the idea of his family climbing up into this perfect American neighbourhood, Grandfather Whitshank obsesses over the home until he is able to buy it as his own.
In the following generations, Tyler fills the house with her favourite type of characters – a mother foolishly and comically bent on keeping her family together, a mysterious ne’er do well son, and an adopted child. The plot moves along with the unravelling, and subsequent stitching back together, of the family – around incidents of jealousy, misunderstanding and secrecy.
As I read any of Tyler’s books, the best known being An Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons, I always feel comfortable and fully invested in her stories. But I often find myself wondering: What is it about the story that is so riveting? What is even driving the plot forward?
Like Jane Austen, John Updike or Margaret Laurence, Tyler creates the most real and compelling characters in seemingly ordinary situations, all the while subtly critiquing the society they inhabit. Although we like to think our families are special and unique, like the Whitshanks, we probably aren’t. At the same time, we like to imagine that catastrophy, discord and tragedy are the domain of other families, and are often taken by surprise when they surface in our own homes.
After a time, you may forget the actual plot line of a Tyler novel, but the feeling that you’ve brushed up against powerful ideas and characters you’re sure you’ve met before – if not seen in the mirror – will stay with you. While Tyler’s style of domestic novel isn’t currently as in vogue as memoirs or revisionist historical novels, Tyler is still, undoubtedly, one of the great writers of our time.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.