About a third of the way through Anne Tyler latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, the entire Whitshank family set off to spend a week at the beach. This isn’t a spur of the moment vacation. Not only do the Whitshanks spend the same week on the Delaware coast every summer, they spend it in the same house. And, they are not the only family with fixed habits when it comes to taking a holiday.
“The next-door people are back,” Jeannie called, stepping in from the screen porch.
Next door was almost the only house as unassuming as theirs was, and the people she was referring to had been renting it for at least as long as the Whitshanks had been renting theirs. Oddly enough, though, the two families never socialized.
They may not socialise, but the Whitshanks do speculate about the nature of the family and watch for changes year by year.
[T]hey continued to come, the mother taking her early morning walks along the beach…the daughters in the company of boyfriends who metamorphosed into husbands, by and by, and then a little boy appearing and later a little girl.
“The grandson has brought a friend this year,” Jeannie reported. “Oh, that makes me want to cry.”
“Cry! What for?” Hugh asked her.
“It’s the … circularity, I guess. When we first saw the next-door people the daughters were the ones bringing friends, and now the grandson is, and it starts all over again.”
“You sure have given these folks a lot of thought,” Hugh said.
“Well, they’re us, in a way,” Jeannie said.
And, just as the Whitshanks watch the changes in the next-door family so we, the readers, do the same for them. When the book begins we have as unfocused a notion of the dynamics in Tyler’s Baltimore family as their holiday neighbours do. Do we
find the Whitshanks attractive? Intriguing? [Do we] admire their large numbers and their closeness? Or [have we] noticed a hidden crack somewhere?
Well, if we haven’t noticed the crack, indeed the cracks, by the time we read about the annual holiday then we haven’t been paying enough attention, because what Tyler gives us in this novel is a portrait of an apparently stable, loving family that unwinds as we observe it. Like a spool of thread which, when first purchased, appears tightly bound and compact, the moment you start to pull at a loose end the whole structure begins to fall apart. What is more, once that has happened, you can never rewind and recover the sense of completeness and perfection that you had before. Indeed one crack exposes another and then another until there is little left of the image with which you began.
The process begins slowly enough. We are aware from early on that the elder Whitshank boy, Denny, is a source of family disquiet, but it isn’t until Denny himself, in a reported conversation with Abby, his mother, drops the bombshell that Stem, the youngest Whitshank, is in fact not a Whitshank at all, that the process really begins to gain momentum. And from then on in we watch as all that we have been led to believe about the stability of the family, all the stories that they have told about the Whitshank past, the stories on which their sense of who they are is built, crumbles before our eyes. We move back through the generations, discovering at each stage how different the reality of the Whitshank’s family history is from the picture that they present to the world.
And yet, they are still Whitshanks. Oh, it may be Stem, the abandoned child, who shares their name but not their blood, who takes on that family name in the form of the business, but it the end it is Denny who proves himself to be the direct descendent of those first Baltimore Whitshanks, Junior and Linnie Mae. In a reflection of the circularity that Jeannie recognised in their beach-side neighbours, the novel concludes with Denny’s return to a woman who clearly loves him but to whom, in an echo of his grandfather’s earlier behaviour, he has been unable to commit, and we are left with the sense that perhaps this time he really will be able to build a relationship that has some lasting stability. It may not be as strong or as perfect as they would like the world to think, but it will have a utility out which a future can be forged. Some of that trailing thread is being rewound and while it may not be possible to return it to its original pristine condition it will serve for the day to day purpose of holding a family together.
While the Whitshanks may not be the picture of family perfection that they would like to appear, Tyler’s depiction of them comes pretty close to perfection. Time and again I found myself drawing parallels between situations in either my own family or those of people to whom I am close enough to have been allowed to see the cracks. And for me, I think her greatest achievement is the sense of hope that she provides for such families. Because, despite the flaws, the difficulties, the betrayals, that we witness, in the end we recognise there is still love in this family, there is still mutual support, there is still a sense that while the thread may not be as tightly bound as it could be, they are all part of that same spool. This may be a novel that charts our growing awareness, as outsiders, of the dysfunctional nature of the Whitshank family, but ultimately it is also a novel that says, in fact, any family at which you look closely is probably going to be pretty dysfunctional one way and another. But you know what? In the end they are going to survive because they are bound by that blue thread and as long as it isn’t actually severed it can be wound back in and remain whole. And, as Jeannie points out, the family we are observing is us, in a way, which means that Tyler is also saying that there is a good chance for the survival of any family, just so long as you’re willing to hold on tight to the end of that spool of blue thread.