Most of all, I love how busy the animals in our midst get! The squirrels and chipmunks in our yard drive our dogs Poppy and Mae crazy and our canines spend the entire day, tails wagging furiously, snouts pointed to the ground, joining in a chorus of frantic barking from the neighborhood cast. I took them to Radnor Lake recently and they visited the snapping turtles and wild turkeys with great enthusiasm! ANY chance to be outdoors stretching my legs and enjoying the day I will take in the fall.”
When she’s not outside or managing the business of four kids, a husband, Poppy and Mae, Daphne is hard at work as co-chair of the Frist Gala. The upcoming Gala will be held on April 9th, 2016, and it celebrates the exhibit “Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting.” “We are humming along with the planning of next year’s Spanish-themed evening,” Daphne says, “thanks to the incredible Frist staff. It’s been an absolute ball working with Elizabeth Dennis and the staff. Betsy Wills has been invaluable, and she really should be named a co-chair at this point, but she’s already chaired this event.”
Daphne is never too busy for a friend, a good laugh, a project – or a book. Today, she shares her thoughts on A Spool of Blue Thread.
Anne Tyler’s latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a magnificent read about a favorite topic of mine, family.
In his epic Anna Karenina, Tolstoy opens with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anne Tyler may well have had this in mind as she wrote this novel, which is a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.
She describes her subject matter, the Whitshank family, as “unremarkable” when compared to other families. Tyler’s beautifully told stories unveil a reality in which family happiness is, like an illusion, fleeting. Once its smooth veneer has been cracked, issues like personality conflict, personal dramas, and opposing values emerge and threaten the ties that bind.
Early in the book our narrator says of the family:
“That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe that wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”
Like the worn house that is home to four generations of Whitshanks, the book meanders, creeks and sways. The stories of this family come to light slowly – through unhurried, descriptive tales that dance from one generation to the next – from the older, aspirational one to the younger, self assured one, and back. The stories appear to the reader through the lens of a mildly interested observer, making it oddly all the more intriguing. The book was like watching a golf match on tv, whispered commentary guiding the viewer around a course.
Like most families, the Whitshanks boast a diverse membership. There are outspoken, rebellious and selfish ones like Junior and Denny; and big hearted, generous and selfless souls like Abby and Nora. All the rest fall somewhere in the middle but frequently exhibit characteristics and behaviors of the extremes.
Of all the characters we come to know, Denny is at the heart of this family’s story, and his story is why I strongly recommend the book. Every family has a Denny somewhere in its lineup. He is a Prodigal Son figure who is alternatingly adored and despised, but always misunderstood. It is Denny, from start to finish, who keeps the reader curious and, along with his family members, anxiously anticipating his next, unpredictable move.
Blue Thread’s opening chapter feels like a live theater performance. Abby (mother) paces the floor of the bedroom as Red (father) holds the phone to his ear and hears Denny’s (son) proclamation that he is gay. Following this astonishing announcement, Denny disconnects, leaving the matter to be discussed dismissively by Red and in anguish by Abby. Several months later, when Denny appears for Christmas break aglow with information on his new girlfriend, the matter, having never again been discussed or acknowledged, has been forgotten.
“His gayness, or his non-gayness, just seemed to get lost in the shuffle. ‘I can see why some families pretend they weren’t told,’ Abby said after the holidays.”
Unlike the family members before and among him, Denny seems to lack the ability to give a damn about anyone but himself. It’s not until you’ve followed him around a while that you realize this is not the case; indeed just below the surface lurks a very complex, caring man whose life experiences have shaped his uneven character.
One of my very favorite passages captures the love the Whitshanks have for Denny as well as their inability to influence his actions. When Denny fails to show up for the family beach vacation:
“…nobody knew that he wasn’t coming. They kept waiting for him to phone and announce his arrival date, and when it grew clear that he wasn’t going to, everyone experienced the most crushing sense of flatness…they couldn’t shake the thought that he still might show up. They turned hopefully from their jigsaw puzzle when the screen door slammed in an evening breeze. They stopped speaking in mid-sentence when somebody out beyond the breakers started swimming toward them with that distinctive, rolling stroke that Denny always used…”
Denny’s impact on the family story is profound: his good days, when he is kind and generous toward parents and siblings, restore balance and summon the happy family Abby strives to conjure. Denny’s dark days and resulting cruel, callous treatment of his family destroy the fragile illusion of happiness.
For anyone who has ever felt jubilant after a sibling’s unexpected visit; frustrated by comments made over the breakfast table; out of ideas on how to help a suffering sibling; broken by the loss of a parent; jealous, run down or alone while in the presence of family, this book will be as comforting as it is enlightening. Be prepared to laugh out loud at Linnie and Junior’s unorthodox love affair, delight in Abby’s unabashed faith in fellow humankind, and ultimately shed a tear for Denny as Tyler slowly reveals the lovely, compassionate soul that dwells alongside a deeply troubled mind.
* * *
For Daphne’s prior post on Learned Optimism and Toxic Charity, plus her intro bio, please click here.