Anne Tyler's 'A Spool of Blue Thread' was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Women's Fiction Prize last year. I have read quite a few of her novels (Celestial Navigation here) and this one, that my sister sent me for Christmas, did not disappoint.
I think Anne Tyler is an acquired taste, her books are very quiet and low key, nothing much happens, and although the stories are all very different she does cover similar themes.
This is a story about family (as so many of them are), about memory and the stories that bind families together. Red and Abby Whitshank live in the house that Red's father built for the Brill's. It is the object of their enduring affection, which makes the ending of the story so sad for me. I have moved house a lot, and never owned my own home, so the thought of a house that has been part of your entire life is something of a pipe dream for me. The first part of the book is really Abby's story, she is the one who tells the stories, about her family and the life she has created for them; and how her family react when she starts to get a little forgetful. I liked her because she chose the life she had, unlike, it was to emerge, other people in the family.
"She might suddenly smell again the bitter, harsh, soul-dampening fumes of the chopped onions and green peppers her mother fried up most evenings as the base for her skillet dinners, back when Abby was a toddler whining with hunger and tiredness and just general five p.m. blues. She might hear the long-ago humming in the wires that the number 29 streetcar made when it sped down Roland Avenue without having to stop. And out of nowhere she pictured her childhood dog, Binky, who used to sleep with both paws folded over his nose to keep himself warm on cold nights. It was exactly like a time trip. She was bobbing along in a time machine gazing out the window at one scene after another in no particular order. At one story after another. Oh, there'd been so many stories in her life! The Whitshanks claimed to only have two; she couldn't imagine why. Why select just a certain few stories to define yourself? Abby had a wealth of them." (p.220)
The family falls apart when she is killed in an accident; she did not seem like a strong character but without her they seem to lack a sense of direction. We then go back in time to Junior and Linnie, their children Red and Merrick, and the background of how they came to be living in the Brill's house. It is a story of people pursuing things, and then finding, or not finding, how what they thought they wanted was not what they wanted. Abby thinks she is a rebellious young woman, but finds, after all, that the quiet steadiness of Red is what suits her. Junior (Red's father) ran away from a family that did not care, to try and build a life for himself in depression era America, but finds himself ambushed by the besotted Linnie, who waits to grow up and then searches him out. He acquieses to her presence in his life, and it felt like the most tragic waste. Here he is lovingly preparing a swinging seat for the porch of their new house (the Brill's house), so desperately wanting it to be perfect, but his idea of perfect, not Linnie's:
"Junior's two separate trips to apply the varnish and the final trip he would make Friday morning to screw the eyebolts back in and reattach the ropes on their figure eights and hang the swing from the ceiling: she would have no idea of any of that. It echoed the pattern of their lives together - all the secrets he had kept from her despite his temptation to tell. She would never know how deeply he had longed to free himself all these years, how he had stayed with her only because he knew she would be lost otherwise, how onerous it had been to go on and on, day after day, setting right what he had done wrong. No, she had absolute faith that he had stayed because he loved her. And if he told her otherwise - if he somehow managed to convince her of his sacrifice - she would be crushed, and the sacrifice would have been for nothing." (p.423-4)
I felt like the house became a substitute for both men, Red and Junior, to save them from having to communicate with their wives and children, that in taking such meticulous care of it they could feel that they fulfilled their duty to their families. The offspring of the family are presented as somewhat bland and conventional, apart from Denny who is the cause of all the family anxiety. He absents himself, staying out of touch for long periods, being deliberately enigmatic and secretive about his life. It seems to be both an attempt to get attention and a way for him to reject their demands for information at intrusive. He drifts back out of their lives at the end and the reader is not any more clear about what he wants.
I like Tyler's stories because they do not give answers to life's questions, they just paint intimate portraits of other families, lets you look into their lives and contemplate for a while. And then you just go back to your own messy life and get on with it.