In 20 novels published over a remarkable 50-year period, Anne Tyler has staked her claim as our premier chronicler of the ordinary, imperfect American family. Set in Baltimore, like most of her work, A Spool of Blue Thread concerns just such a family. Abby and Red Whitshank and their four children are, from the outside, just like anyone else. Red is a second-generation building contractor, Abby a social worker, and the clan has long occupied a rambling house that Red’s father once built for another man. Like all families, they have had their ups and downs, their squabbles, resentments and misunderstandings, but nothing has irreparably damaged the household fabric.
That equilibrium gives way as Abby and Red age and their health begins to decline—Red suffering a small heart attack, Abby showing the first signs of dementia. The solution the grown children settle on is for youngest son, Stem, and his serene, unflappable wife, Nora, to move in with their three little boys, an arrangement that goes forward despite protests from the elder Whitshanks. But the cart is upset when prodigal son Denny shows up, miffed that he has not been the one asked to move in and care for his parents. Now, an emotional reckoning is at hand.
Swinging back to earlier times in Whitshank history, we see the full arc of the family’s story, each episode fleshing out the story until A Spool of Blue Thread becomes a deeper narrative about how families survive and endure. The work of some writers—Philip Roth and Henry James come to mind—becomes knottier and more ruminative as they age, but the prose of the now 73-year-old Tyler has become looser and less formal. Still, she has not lost her singular capacity for delineating the small, true details that make us who we are and govern how we bumble our way through the world.