Eccentric Baltimore families populate every book of Anne Tyler's I've ever read, including A Spool of Blue Thread. In this case, it is the Whitshank family--Red, Abby, and their four children, as well as Red's parents Linnie and Junior, who built the family home that is essentially another character in the story. Because the novel's first focus is Red and Abby's most troublesome child, Denny, the reader gets the faulty idea that he will be the protagonist (and, in those early pages, I was disappointed because I felt Tyler was repeating herself). In fact, however, his story is just Tyler's first example of the book's intriguing themes--that we shape the stories we tell others and ourselves about our lives to approximate what we want them to be and every member of a family tells a different story about the same events. Abby's story about Denny is that he sucked up a disproportionate share of his parents' attention, leaving the other three children somewhat neglected, while Denny's story is that his parents cared more about his younger brother Stem than about him, pushing him aside when the perfect Stem joined the family.
Sibling rivalry comes to the fore as Red and Abby start to deteriorate--Red has a mild heart attack and Abby begins having memory problems that resemble the aftereffects of a stroke. Stem, his wife Nora, and their three boys decide to move in with Red and Abby so Nora can keep an eye on Abby and take over the housework and cooking. Then Denny shows up to help, carrying little physical baggage but a huge psychological load comprised largely of resentment toward his parents and his brother. Tension increases until a climactic event occurs--but there's still a third of the book remaining, so where will Tyler go next?
Surprisingly (to me at least), she goes back in time to recount various versions of the staples of family history--how Red and Abby fell in love and how Junior and Linnie became a couple. The two perspectives on Junior and Linnie's story are especially surprising, giving readers new insight into Junior's obsession with the family home and deepening awareness of the theme. The final section of the book returns to the present, revealing that--despite conflict and trauma--no one is significantly changed. We are, in essence, who we are.
One of Tyler's great strengths is capturing the craziness of family conversations, people talking over one another, subjects suddenly veering in unexpected directions, the hard-of-hearing parent illustrating all too literally that what is said is not always what is heard. Her description of a funeral is both hilarious and heartbreaking. As someone who has experienced divergent memories of shared history, I also enjoyed the opportunity to think about the themes Tyler explicates. The longer I stuck with the book, the more I relinquished by irritation and enjoyed Tyler's work.
But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories--all that they take away with them.
But it was easier, somehow, to reflect on them all [Abby's children] from a distance than to be struggling for room in their midst. [I think my mother may have occasionally felt this way about her children!]
One thing that parents of problem children never said aloud: it was a relief when the children turned out okay, but then what were the parents supposed to do with the anger they'd felt all those years?