Ann Tyler’s novels reveal the inner workings of marriages and families. Her 20th novel — and, sadly, her last, she has said — is titled “A Spool of Blue Thread,” and like many of her books, it takes place in Baltimore, this time revolving around the Whitshank family.
The novel opens with a late-night phone call from 19-year-old prodigal son Denny. Father Red answers, and after a brief statement from Denny, the phone call ends. Mother Abby tries to get information from Red about the phone call — where Denny is, what is he doing, did he sound nervous or upset?
Red and Abby have a fight about it, not the first time their wayward son has caused them to argue and worry about him. Abby accuses Red of always finding fault with Denny, while being soft on their two girls, Jeannie and Amanda, and relating better to their son Stem because he and Red are so much alike.
Reading this chapter sets the tone for this insightful family novel. Anyone who is a parent will understand the Red/Abby relationship right away, and compare their own family dynamic to the Whitshanks.
Abby recalls a story about taking Denny to the grocery store when he was 10, and feeling that Denny was embarrassed by his mother. “He acted as if he’d been assigned the wrong mother, and she just didn’t measure up.”
Red owns a home construction business, founded by his father. Stem works with his dad, is married to Nora, a devout woman, and they are parents to three young boys. Jeannie also works in the family business, but feels like she isn’t treated as much as an equal because she is a woman.
Amanda is a lawyer, married to Hugh, also the name of Jeannie’s husband, and they have a teen daughter.
The Whitshanks are a close-knit family, but they have their quirks and disagreements. The girls seem to feel that because Denny disappears and reappears that he has always gotten all of their parents’ attention. Abby and Red spend so much time worrying and arguing about Denny, there is little leftover for them.
As time goes by, it is apparent that Abby is having cognitive issues. She seems to lose time, and doesn’t know where she has been or what she has been doing. Red is having hearing and health problems.
Amanda, Jeannie and Stem get together and it is decided that Stem, Nora and the boys will move in with Red and Abby to help them out. After this happens, Denny shows up unexpectedly and is upset that no one thought to ask him to move back in and help.
The three siblings remind Denny that he has a habit of just showing up and then getting peeved about a perceived slight and disappearing for years again. He is not the most reliable caregiver.
But Denny insist that he is staying, and the house becomes crowded with an additional six people and an extra dog. Abby and Red do their best to adjust, but the living situation is difficult. Daughter-in-law Nora tries to be helpful, doing the cooking, cleaning and running errands, but Abby understandably resents this intrusion into her home.
A tragedy occurs that devastates the family, and they must adjust to new circumstances. Tyler excels at dropping the reader into this family’s life, so that we feel like we are their neighbors, watching our friends next door make their way through life.
The novel then takes a turn as we shift time to learn about Red’s parents. We discover how Junior Whitshank and his wife, Linnie, met and married. That story is a great reminder that our parents were young once, and what we think we know about them is not all there is to the story. They had interesting and surprising lives before we came along.
Junior wanted to be someone important, and he found a way to do that through building up his construction company and finding a way to own the one house he truly loved — a house he designed for a wealthy family. He managed to buy that house and live his dream.
If this is how Ann Tyler ends her writing career, it is a fitting coda. “A Spool of Blue Thread” is a story that could be any of our family’s stories, but in the hand of a master like Ann Tyler, it is emotional and heartbreaking and relatable.