Of the six books that have been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, A Spool of Blue Thread appears, at first glance, to be the least provocative. Anne Tyler’s novel—one of two American works on the shortlist this year—takes as its subject the everyday joy and heartbreak that occur within the mostly pleasant lives of a white, middle-class Baltimore family, the Whitshanks. It’s a far cry from a murder-heavy, Rastafarian-infused epic. And in a literary world that falls hard for “dark fairytales,” its lack of provocation has raised a critical eyebrow or two, leading some to wonder if it qualifies as literary at all. The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, for example, had scant praise for these “merely generic figures in a middling middlebrow novel.”
Blue Thread is Anne Tyler’s 20th novel. It also happens to be the first novel of hers I’ve ever read. So I consulted some commentary on her work to get myself oriented. Words like “folksy,” “cozy,” and “domestic” come up a lot in descriptions of the fiction she’s been writing since 1964. In the eyes of many longtime readers, Tyler is especially gifted in her ability to deliver graceful, touching tales of the ordinary. She’s won the Pulitzer Prize—for her 11th novel, Breathing Lessons—and is notoriously publicity-shy (though she did her first-ever live radio interview in February, with Diane Rehm, to promote Blue Thread). Even Tyler’s biggest fans acknowledge that her prose can verge on the sentimental or cloying. But as Brad Leithauser wrote in a 1992 essay for TheNew York Review of Books, her power lies in her willingness to go where other “serious” contemporary authors won’t: “She is, in fact, bold in a number of quiet ways.”
I then tried to put these data points—and any accompanying urge to assign A Spool of Blue Thread a brow, middle or high—aside. I wanted to use my unfamiliarity with Tyler as an asset, looking to the novel itself for clues about how to read it, about what she was really getting at here. Early on, it became clear that her interest in families and the stories their members tell goes deeper than a self-indulgent fondness for the comforts of homespun yarns. In fact, Tyler shows herself to be as wary of the pitfalls of domestic narrative as her harshest critics.
Tyler allows her characters the security blankets of a handful of well-worn family stories even as she reminds her readers just how self-serving these tales can be. She’s well aware that most of the stories we tell ourselves are perfectly ridiculous, even if most of her characters aren’t. The Whitshanks think of themselves as “one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just … specialness,” but Tyler acknowledges that their own self-image doesn’t necessarily match their reality: “They had a talent for pretending that everything was fine … Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.” For every folksy familial trope trotted out (“Houses need humans”; “maybe he was beginning to recognize the importance of family”), there’s a moment of reckoning with the anxiety that lies beneath it. Tyler captures a sense that without these reminders, the Whitshanks—or any family, really—might decide to give up on their weekly Sunday lunches, move further from home, and opt for less-frequent contact. Cozy though her scenes can be, she evokes chasms, too.
Tyler does not obscure the fact that a fixation on family as the all-important designation can be as alienating as it is embracing. Abby, the novel’s deftly drawn and warm protagonist—who just “wanted her loved ones happy!” and reads “books on how to be a good grandmother”—divides the world between those who are in families and those who are out. A social worker, she means well when she holds her famous “orphan dinners” for solitary acquaintances, but even these tend to devolve into awkward encounters between the Whitshank children and their mother’s motley guests. The children (now adults)—including one who we learn partway through the book is an actual orphan the Whitshanks adopted—still chafe at the inequities in parental attention they perceive. One son, Denny, has left Baltimore and drifts around in search of the opposite of the rooted Whitshank insularity and pride. “I love that feeling,” he says of being somewhere unfamiliar. “You don’t know your place in the world; you’re not pegged.”
The lesson is that knowing your place in the world as a member of a family might feel good, but it inevitably entails some degree of self-deception. Abby’s mother-in-law, Linnie Mae, confides that she and her husband “had one of the world’s great love stories, in our little way!” Her husband Junior, it turns out, doesn’t see it that way. He spends his whole life telling himself a very different story, about how he can prove his own fortitude by sustaining that fiction of true love, which he has never felt. Tyler drives home the lesson in an irony-laden exchange between them. Junior corrects Linnie Mae on her use of the word “story” as a stand-in for “lie,” a verbal relic of the Deep South of their youth. “‘Lie’ is what they call it up here,” he barks. “They don’t pussyfoot around calling it a ‘story.’” Linne Mae, the more recent émigré, replies, “Well, I can’t help that. Down home it’s rude to say ‘lie.’” Stories, we are reminded, may not all be lies, but they’re not all true, either.
In the end, Tyler stands by the power of family sagas to hold generations together, which occasionally makes for storytelling that relies too heavily on clichés. Just when you think you can’t bear to hear more about the much-beloved family home that has blessed and burdened three generations of Whitshanks’ lives, Tyler has the family’s patriarch thinking, “It was a house that said ‘Welcome,’ that said ‘Family,’ that said ‘Solid people live here.’” It’s almost as if she worried, suddenly, that her reader may have been asleep for the last 250 pages. (“As I look back on my writing over the years and years,” the 73-year-old Tyler told Diane Rehm, “I feel as if, if I ever make a mistake in a book, I think it’s about over-explaining.”) As the Whitshanks prepare to move out of their family home after an unexpected loss, Tyler hits readers over the head with the Halloween decorations hanging from the rafters of the porch: Yes, they are ghosts. And there are perhaps a few too many nods to The Wizard of Oz, another parable rife with reflections on the meaning of home.
But the lapses into predictability, too, prove Tyler’s point. Family stories, however distorting, still matter deeply to those who retell them, looking for ways to craft identities, to distinguish between strangers and dear friends and kin. In short, they matter to all of us. To call them lies would be rude. And to call Tyler’s story inauthentic—too tidy, too blinkered to rate as truly literary—would only affirm the authenticity of her wisdom about this very human, utterly imperfect need to classify. The Man Booker jury will no doubt find itself puzzling over this very dilemma.