"A Spool of Blue Thread,'' the newest novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler, 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.
Abby and Red Whitshank are an aging couple facing a crossroads that will be familiar to many. Abby is a former social worker and amateur poet who for years has been "sending her efforts to tiny magazines that promptly sent them back." Red is a successful builder and businessman. The two have lived the whole of their married life in the house Red's father built; they are understandably reluctant to give up their independence.
But Abby has been calling their dog by a dead dog's name for as long as her four children can remember. Red is almost deaf and in deteriorating health. Abby repeatedly disappears for walks during which she becomes disoriented and lost, causing worried search parties to be dispatched.
Stem, the couple's adopted (and favored) son, and his diaphanous yet capable wife, Nora, and their children move in to care for Abby and Red after a series of hired helpers are unceremoniously banished from the house.
This already tense situation is further complicated by the return of the rakish Denny, the irresponsible and mysterious prodigal son, whose "questionable" friends, middle-of-the-night phone calls, and befuddling frequent job changes have earned him the label of erratic and unreliable. Although Denny is the child Abby understands least — "He acted as if he'd been assigned the wrong mother . . . and she just didn't measure up" — she loves him best. "[Y]ou know how it is when you're missing a loved one. You try to turn every stranger into the person you were hoping for."
As all four siblings get together, resentments build; secrets are revealed; and in the middle of the novel, a strange tragedy turns the entire plot on its head. Readers anticipating an easy "domestic" novel will be terrifically surprised.
Tyler's genius as a novelist involves her ability to withhold moral judgment of her characters. Is Denny an easy scapegoat or simply selfish and cold hearted? Tyler trusts the reader to decide this and other questions about her characters' integrity or goodness. "A Spool of Blue Thread,'' with its largely omniscient viewpoint and wide, far-reaching emotional landscape, epitomizes the famous first line in Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina": "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Tyler is in full command of her scenes and her characters, grounding her reader in time and space in every sequence of this tightly written and highly readable novel. Abby and Red, in particular, are luminously drawn, and Tyler employs dark humor wonderfully. "Maybe she and Red could die at the same time. Say, on a plane. They could have a few minutes' warning, a pilot's announcement that would give them a chance to trade last words. Except that they never flew anywhere, so how was that going to happen."
Breaking with a conventional linear structure, the final and most compelling chapters belong to Abby and relay the series of events that led to her falling in love with Red, a story that exists only in Abby's memory, told here to the reader. The discoveries in these final pages are likely to force readers to reflect back on the earlier chapters and view them in an entirely new — and much darker — light. Here we see the truth about every love story: It was merely an accident of chance.
Emily Rapp Black is the author, most recently, of "The Still Point of the Turning World."