A Spool of Blue Thread

by Anne Tyler

The second book I have read by this author.  How I came by this book is a silly story, but I feel the need to tell it.  I was about two-thirds of the way through Patrick Gale’s A Place called Winter, and put the book ready to take with me to the hairdresser.  When I got into town, I realised I had left the book behind.  Never mind, I had a bit of time in hand, and as I walked past a charity bookstore on the way in, I decided to go in and look for something to read.  I had intended to read this book at some point, so it was an obvious choice.  Rather than spend 20 minutes reading the hairdresser’s magazines while my hair colour was settling, I would far rather get to grips with a good novel!

It was a rewarding decision.  Anne Tyler is able to get right under the skin of families with all their nuances of relationships, behaviours, and traditions.  In this novel she deals with the relationships between adult children and their increasingly frail parents; between siblings, whether related by blood or adoption; between in-laws; and of course between husband and wife.  As the stories of at least three generations of the same family unravel, the reader gets a glimpse of just how complex family life really is; and how apparently random the decisions that bring us together.

Tyler begins this novel by relating the two ‘stories’ that are most important in the Whitshank family tradition, and hints that all families have such stories. In fact, these two stories are not the most significant in the history of the family, as the reader later finds out.  But they are the ones that the family likes to recall.

One scene that more particularly resonates is where the teenage Abby visits Red’s parents’ house to provide moral support for her then boyfriend, a friend of Red’s who has been drafted in to help fell a tree in preparation for Red’s sister Merrick’s wedding.  Abby observes Red’s parents, and the way in which Red and his somewhat difficult father relate to each other.  She immediately sees in Red a determination and steadiness (my words) that her current boyfriend lacks.  And makes the decision that will shape her life.

A masterful storyteller.  I can’t wait to read more by this author.

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A Patchwork Planet

by Anne Tyler

This is the first Anne Tyler that I have read.  I was absolutely bowled over by it.

The main character, Barnaby, tells his own story as he tries to make his way through what is, on the face of it, a challenging life.  He has failed his family’s expectations but is still in regular contact with them, and so has to suffer repeated humiliations at the hands of his parents and brother.  His work (for ‘rent-a-back’, an agency supplying able-bodied workers to disabled and elderly clients who need occasional help) appears to satisfy him, but he is well aware that others see it as worthless and him as an under-achiever.  As the story moves along, the reader begins to gain confidence in Barnaby even as he becomes more confident in himself.  The people who are so quick to judge Barnaby, and fail to trust him, are less to be admired than those who stick by him and encourage him.

Tyler’s story development and character development are so accomplished that the reader is drawn right in.  The story is not in any way fast-moving or exciting, with no tricky plot twists (except, perhaps, at the very end), but Barnaby’s character develops and blossoms as his story unfolds.  A heart-warming story, but not in any way simplistic or over-sweet.  Perhaps I should have said: it is a very human story.