A Writer Reads: Watch That Tone

(A post by guest author Mary Burns)

A Spool of Blue ThreadI used to like the work of the American writer Anne Tyler, especially her Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which I passed along to friends.  I was inspired by the way she was able to reveal character through details that demonstrated truths about what is called ordinary life.  What life is really ordinary?

When a friend offered me, A Spool of Blue Thread, her most recent, I looked forward to a good read by a writer whose likeable surfaces often belie the intelligence behind the creation.  A Spool of Blue Thread is another family story – an inexhaustible subject for novelists – with the usual interesting and individual characters: an upwardly mobile man, Junior, who fell in love with a house he built and later bought from the original, much wealthier owner, and the wife who fell in love with Junior when she was 13 and was determined to follow him to Baltimore, whether he liked it or not; their son Red, who inherits the house and—mostly–Red’s wife Abby and their children, Denny, Stem, and the two daughters, both of whom are married to men named Hugh.  We meet Abby when she’s getting older and so is her husband.  Although they are only in their early 70’s, signs of dementia and heart trouble have appeared.  The four grown children, including the renegade Denny – there seems always to be a renegade family member in Tyler’s novels – have to figure out ways of dealing with their aging parents.  Denny moves into the family house, but so does his adopted brother Stem and Stem’s pious and lovely wife and three sons.

The first part of the novel reads quickly and easily and the picture of the family at this juncture fills out with the apparent ease that is common to Tyler’s style.  She uses a third person point of view that allows her to get into the minds of more than just Abby, but, for me, Abby’s voice dominated.  As the story proceeded I found it predictable, even worn, and I was disappointed.  Not enough variation in tone.  Even difficult situations came across in the same sort of chirpy, “too bad, but..” almost sing-song that I could hardly take seriously. Was it me?  I have been reading fiction and non-fiction that are more serious in tone and are easily as well, if not much better, written than Tyler’s, so maybe it’s just that I was unconsciously comparing her.  Not fair.  Each book is different and should be assessed on how well it meets the expectations it sets up.

When I got to the last third of the novel, I found that the chirpy voice of Abby, the mother character who dominated the first half, had been replaced by a more distant, somehow more intense narrator through whom we learn more about Junior and his precocious wife Linnie, and how they got married and how Junior achieved his dream of owning the house he fell in love with, in the neighbourhood he aspired to.  There’s more tension here.  More grit.  While Linnie has a bit of Abby’s chirpiness – these women seem to be able to do anything and their low points have an “oh, well” quality – I found it interesting that she just overwhelmed Junior.  Took over his life.  I felt he went along with Linnie without really liking how she steered him, without even liking her too much, so maybe another example of a Tyler man who is a sort of wimp.  Yet there is steel in Junior, too.  I loved Tyler’s descriptions of the perfect craftsmanship that Junior so treasures.  He may not have had the social pedigree his neighbours had, but I can believe he made the best house on the block—the best constructed and decorated, the best cared for.  The force in his character that drives him to achieve those things also helps deliver more than the first two-thirds of the novel promised.

In his 1982 New Yorker review of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, John Updike wrote that in that novel, her ninth, Tyler added “the darkening” that gave her “beautifully shaped sketches” solidity.  I had to wait for a similar aspect to emerge in A Spool of Blue Thread, but it was satisfying when it did.  The darkening comes from the content of a story, yes, but also the storytelling voice, the tone.


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