Monday, June 22, 2015

Anne Tyler looks at family myths in her 20th novel ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’

Photo by Michael Lionstar

The good news is that Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a wonderful book. The bad news is that she has said that it will be her last novel. Hers is a voice I have read and loved for fifty years and I am inexpressibly sad that there may not be more to come.

A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of three generations of a Baltimore family.

[It] is a thoughtful and intriguing study of the role of memory in creating and destroying the stories we tell
ourselves about love. The lived story, the novel reveals, is far more complex than the one repeatedly told as part of a family’s known history. Tyler, best known for “The Accidental Tourist” (1985) and the 1989 Pulitzer winner “Breathing Lessons,” is a writer who takes a quintessentially American story and reveals its darker and more unexpected underside. (Emily Rapp Black, The Boston Globe, 3/7/15)

The family history does not go back very far. The “founders” are Junior (short for Jurvis Roy) Whitshank and Linnie Mae. When Junior is 26, he meets the well-developed Linnie Mae at a church function and, three weeks later, they are having sex at every opportunity. He has no idea she is only 13 and she doesn’t tell him. After her father and brothers catch them in the hayloft, he is run off, half-naked and humiliated, at gunpoint. He heads for Baltimore where he learns the construction trade from a highly-respected builder. Ambitious and anxious to move up the social ladder from his own beginnings, Junior finds work and establishes his own business. Five years after his humiliation in the hayloft, Linnie Mae, now 18, tracks him down in the belief that he is in love with her and with the full expectation that he will marry her.

Years later, she recalls it as a beautiful romance:

“I didn’t lay eyes on him again for close onto five years…I had no idea where he was…I stayed faithful to him, though. I never forgot him for one minute. Oh, we had one of the world’s great love stories, in our little way! And once we got back together again, it was like we’d never parted. You know how that happens, sometimes. We took up right where we left off, the same as ever.”

Junior recalls it differently. He is horrified when she telephones him from the train station. He doesn’t even want to go pick her up. They had only been “dating” for a month and that was five years ago: “She didn’t have the least little claim on him. There was nothing between them. Or there was only the worst experience of his life between them.” Decades later, he muses:

She was the bane of his existence. She was a millstone around his neck. That night back in ’31 when he went to collect her from the train station and found her waiting out front – her unevenly hemmed gray coat too skimpy for the Baltimore winter, her floppy, wide-brimmed felt hat so outdated that even Junior could tell – he’d had the incongruous thought that she was like mold on lumber. You think you’ve scrubbed it off but one day you see it’s crept back again.

He doesn’t send her away, only because he thinks she would be helpless and lost, her family having turned their backs on her.

Junior puts his heart and soul into building a house for clients in the best part of town. This house, with its wide and deep front porch, is the love of his life and what binds the family together for generations. Every inch of it is of the highest quality and reflects Junior’s new aesthetic tastes which he has acquired by working on properties belonging to the oldest, wealthiest families in Baltimore. Even after his clients have moved in, he continues to come back every few days to make minor adjustments, to care for the house. Through some minor trickery, he inspires the occupants to move out and sell the house to him. It is his dream come true and yet, ironically, it doesn’t make him happy. Things are never quite right, never exactly perfect.

There is a wonderfully telling scene in which he has spent “a fortune” on a commissioned hand-crafted porch swing, selecting the wood board by board, having it varnished the perfect shade of honey brown – just like one he saw on the porch of a family he wants to emulate. Linnie Mae wants the swing to be “Swedish Blue” like the swings from her childhood. He tells her this is low-class and tacky.

Behind his back, she has his beautiful hand-crafted swing painted Swedish Blue. He spends another fortune to have it stripped and revarnished. She doesn’t say a word about it. But, on the day they move into the house, he discovers that a can of Swedish Blue paint has been poured on the entire walkway leading up to the house. It takes his crew days of work to get it off and, even then, there are tiny spots of blue in the grout for decades after.

Junior and Linnie Mae have two children: Merrick (a girl) and Redcliffe (a boy). Merrick is a social climber like her father. She deliberately steals her friend’s fiancé, he of monied old family background, and moves into a different world altogether. The marriage is not a success. Red, on the other hand, works with his father, learns the business, and trudges on.

When his parents die, Red inherits the house. He marries Abby, a social worker and amateur poet who sends her poems to “tiny magazines that promptly sent them back":

Alas, poor Abby! She’s a staple of Tyler fiction: the self-denigrating/self-aggrandizing embarrassment of a mother you hope will never show up at your school function. (Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, The New York Times, 2/13/15)

Abby and Red raise four children, two daughters, a son, Denny, and a quasi-adopted boy, “Stem.” Stem works in the business with Red. Denny is the child that gives them fits: irresponsible, unreliable, erratic, and yet his mother’s favorite. He drops out of school, gets a girl pregnant, loses and quits jobs, disappears for years, never gives a straight answer.

Now, after forty-eight years of marriage, Abby and Red are slowing down. He has had a heart attack and is going deaf. She is having spells of “checking out” when her mind skips a few beats. She goes for walks and gets disoriented.

The children try to persuade them to move to a retirement home but they refuse. They have been in the house Junior built for their entire married lives. Stem and his wife and young children and dog move into the house to care for them (even though they have not been invited to do so). Denny suddenly reappears like The Prodigal Son and announces that Stem and family should leave because he, Denny, will be taking care of everything.

Tensions rise, resentments are aired, old quarrels renewed, a devastating secret revealed. At one point, blows are even exchanged.

From a different author, this domestic muckraking would be disillusioning and satiric, a searing exposure of a happy family’s corrupt origins. But Tyler never mocks her characters. Even when she’s having fun with their weird peculiarities and transparent short-sightedness, she’s usually a benevolent goddess. And yet it’s her surprising brutality that kills off any germs of sentimentality in her work. Her sorrow is never unbearable – but it’s never absent, either. (Ron Charles, The Washington Post, 2/10/15)

Anne Tyler has published 20 novels, three of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer in 1989. She has also won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2012 she was awarded The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. She graduated from Duke when she was nineteen. While there, she studied creative writing under Reynolds Price and William Blackburn.

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