Lucy and Todd

Anne Tyler—A Spool of Blue Thread

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 10, 2015 at 3:33 pm

At dawn I went out on the porch with the new Anne Tyler novel, an ancient dog by my side and a cardinal squawking in a bush. I sat down on the porch swing, and started it going with my toes. A car whispered by. Then I heard the phone ring. I got up, left the book on the swing, scooted around the dog dozing on the nicely varnished boards of the porch – a porch so wide it covered the whole front of the house, and so deep you could sit there in a thunderstorm and not get wet – and went inside to answer the phone. It was one of those people that tries to sell you stuff. At seven in the morning! If I’d had Caller ID I would have known it was a stranger and not answered, but Caller ID always seems to me a bit like cheating. So I had a short conversation with this person, stilted at first on my part, but rising eventually to a characteristic, if implausible, flight of fancy. Afterwards, I put the receiver back in its cradle and walked across the floor to the porch and sat down on the porch swing again, when I suffered one of my frequent flashbacks.

I remembered a previous time when I’d been reading an Anne Tyler book, and had wondered, just as now, what the heck it was really about. I was halfway through this one and still had no idea. I often find myself reading Tyler when I’m ailing: I think of her as comfort reading, is why. Tyler’s subdued, unchallenging domestic scenarios usually involve a central male character (men have homes too, after all), surrounded by banal females. They all live in a nice calm leafy part of Baltimore and think about nothing but family from one year to the next. This time though, I didn’t give a hoot for any of the characters and the plot kept jumping around like a grasshopper in a smokehouse.

There’s a man in it, a ‘prodigal son’ (though he comes home pretty regular, to tell you the truth, and only ever strayed as far as New Jersey to begin with). But, I thought on the porch swing with the cardinal muttering in the dogwood beyond, there’s nobody in this novel to get a hold on, just a bunch of people who leave or cling, and keep secrets, like any family. There’s more said about the house they occupy, and the food they eat, than about them. (To make fried okra, cut the okra into bite-size star-shaped slices, soak them in milk, dip them in cornmeal, deep fry, and you’ve got yourself one big unhealthy Southern dish.)

The Whitshanks’ house was built by the grandfather, when he was working his way up in the construction business. He climbed a few social ladders too, while he was at it. But Tyler focuses more on his social worker daughter-in-law, Abby, who used to smoke pot, picket the White House, and take in waifs and strays. Years back, she permanently alienated her four-year-old (and later, wayward) son by unofficially adopting a toddler. Now she unrepentantly annoys her dreary family by inviting foreign exiles to Thanksgiving, adding a welcome note of comic relief: one called Atta pitches up, hating all Americans and declaring she won’t eat American meat, because of all the ‘khormones’ that have been pumped into it. But Tyler, who can be funny, mystifyingly restrains herself most of the time.

Like all families seen from outside, the Whitshanks are smug. Despite the okra, no one in an Anne Tyler book is ever fat. So Atta is there to be disliked, since she’s overweight, and one grandchild sticks out like a sore thumb: ‘Alexander was It, which was painful to watch because he was the first Whitshank in known history to show a tendency toward pudginess. When he ran, he cast his legs out clumsily and paddled the air with both hands.’ This sounds more than a plumpness problem – it’s Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and needlessly cruel. The Whitshanks are not only hard to take (them and their nice house and their annual beach holidays!) but characterless, and often snide. And they all speak in the same way.

Gramps turns out to have had a rather sorry past, for which he’s duly sorry. His life was none too happy, and this streak of melancholy has passed down the generations, like the title’s blue thread. The house stands firm though, throughout the ups and downs of its occupants and, unlike them, is much admired. Estate agents call it ‘the porch house’, and long to get their mitts on it – making this perhaps Tyler’s first venture into property porn.

Her fiction can seem like a Patricia Highsmith novel gone wrong. Both writers amass a whole load of quiet, repetitive, mundane experience at a trudging pace. In Highsmith, this lethargy or stagnation fills you with dread. With Tyler, the sinister element is absent: this is it, this is the story (even when there isn’t one). So, naturally it nearly flipped me off my porch swing when I hit a vein of sex and violence in A Spool of Blue Thread. There’s not a lot of either, but they sure do perk things up some. As always with Tyler, there’s a better novel trying to get out.

(This review appeared in the Herald, February 8, 2015)

LE

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