We first meet Red and Abby Whitshank, residents of Baltimore, when they are past middle-aged, and their four children are grown. In the first scene, we are presented with their feelings and fears about their third child and oldest son, Denny, after a telephone conversation Denny has with his father that has not gone well. Abby expresses her disappointment at his handling of the situation.
It is clear from that moment on that Abby is the nurturer in the family, the understanding one, and while Red is a good soul, he seems oblivious to the nuances of relationships. He bumbles along, doing the best he can, while Abby tries to see everything in a positive light. In some ways, however, she also appears to be a woman who likes to pretend everything is the way she wishes it to be. Another kind of oblivion.
We don’t see a lot of the other children: Amanda, Jeannie, and Stem, the youngest, whom we later learn is really named Douglas, who seem to be background to the story. There is a quirky reason why the youngest is called “Stem,” and we learn much more about him later. But from the beginning, we see that there is conflict, albeit mostly an undercurrent of conflict, between Denny and Stem.
Why does Denny never seem to settle down? Is he unemployable, or does he prefer moving around, trying new things? Why is he almost impossible to reach, but then suddenly appears so unexpectedly? What is clear is how he receives the focus of the family, especially from his mother, who believes that you are only as happy as your least happy child.
What events in the past contributed to these feelings?
Back and forth we go in time, from the origins of the family, beginning with Junior and Linnie Whitshank, Red’s parents, and how Junior built the house on Bouton Road for another family and somehow managed to end up there with his own family. The fact that Red and Abby also ended up there reveals how much the house itself is a part of the family.
A Spool of Blue Thread: A Novel is a quietly moving family story that unfolds as if we are part of it, meeting the characters gradually, one moment at a time, like in real life. To say the Whitshanks are quirky would be an understatement, and it is only at the end of the story that we finally begin to understand the individual family members enough to sigh with satisfaction, as if now the answers are given. Only in the final scenes do we glimpse who Denny really is, and we can now rest. This tale is Anne Tyler in all her glory, in my opinion, and I definitely recommend it for her fans, and also for those who simply enjoy a story that takes its time to reveal itself. 5.0 stars.