Have you ever worried that one of your most favorite authors might disappoint you with a new novel? You wonder if a good author can keep writing good books. Will the latest one fail to compete with earlier ones you loved? You open the new one with trepidation -- half-waiting for the story to fall flat or fail entirely.
Well, fear not. Anne Tyler delivers all you expect and more in her latest book, A Spool of Blue Thread. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Tyler has written twenty books. She can afford to miss the mark every now and then but this one hits all the high notes.
Tyler delivers a funny, (and not so funny) story about how families thread together disparate strands and strains so familiar to all of us who have experienced family life. The result is a truly authentic look at modern day American families.
The Whitshanks are everyone you know or are. Abby is the helicopter mom -- central casting for the family organizer and worrier-in-Chief. Her husband, Red, means well but just can't compete with his over-zealous wife who frets about each child -- leaving most of her energy for the one who needs it the most -- Denny -- the wayward son.
Within the first few pages of the novel, the dynamic of the Whitshank's marriage unfolds with the call from Denny, the wayward son. His failure to communicate leaves his mother, Abby, in full panic and his father, Red, in full rage. The result, of course, is tension between them. "Sometimes," Red Whitshank protests, "I rue and deplore the day I married a social worker." Abby has the perfect parental response: "You are surely not going to try and blame Denny's problems on my profession, " she tells him.
Denny is the child who colors outside the lines. He grows up troubled, seemingly not wanting to utilize any of his creativity to a positive end. He has that all-too-familiar tendency to forget to call his parents and to drop in, unannounced, leaving the rest of the family dancing on the head of a pin to avoid tipping his applecart. He is the pensive and unpredictable one that manages to de-stabilize the entire clan. The family responds with the emotional equivalent of moving the furniture around hm.
Stem is the adopted son who is quietly seething and overly polite throughout the novel but the reader knows he is a boiling pot, with his straight arrow wife who seemingly does everything well. The Whitshank sisters are the high functioning daughters -- Amanda and Jeannie -- who seem to always be left cleaning up the family messes. They want to be nothing like their mother and everything like her all at once.
Family secrets permeate the novel with a piercing reminder of the power of family lore -- with all the exaggerations and versions of stories that bind and divide family members. The dysfunctional nature of the annual summer vacation is a pleasant reminder that all families are similar.
In A Spool of Blue Thread, Tyler manages to move the reader seamlessly through the past and present. There are few surprises in the novel -- an ideal way for Tyler to reinforce the predictability of human nature. Each character struggles to come to terms with his or her place in the family orbit and to find peace in that place.
Anne Tyler knows people. She captures their limitations and possibilities. In this novel, she is able to show us the generational ties that bind us yet trap us into patterns that prove hardest to break.
This book felt like a summer novel perfectly timed to break up the winter blues.
Tara D. Sonenshine teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.