Showing posts with label Anne Tyler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anne Tyler. Show all posts

Friday, June 26, 2020

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Anne Tyler’s works could be described as being from the school of the comedy of manners, and I’ve made many comparisons in the past of her work to Jane Austen’s penchant for dissecting societal foibles.  Tyler’s writings also embody the mysterious, the light within her characters, very in keeping with her Quaker upbringing, and bringing in a touch of magical realism in the dreams of her characters, including daydreams.  Redhead by the Side of the Road has all those elements.   Here are people we all know and their quotidian lives are ones most of us share in some way.  Tyler knows how to engage us.

The life of the protagonist, Micah Mortimer, is yet another diorama in the Anne Tyler Museum of Damaged Men.  He’s an inherently good man but flawed, essentially a loner, a man of routine. Tyler establishes that right out of the gate: You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer.  He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.

That routine involves his three jobs, his work as the super of a small apartment house for which he has living space in a basement with a few high windows, his work as the sole proprietor of a computer repair business, aptly named “Tech Hermit,” for which he has a magnet sign he slaps on his KIA, and his day to day “work” of living, provisioning, cleaning, dressing, eating, and a run in the morning. He has a system for every such task, even commenting out loud in a foreign accent on his housework and having a running dialogue as he drives with an imaginary “Traffic God” who normally will compliment him on his prudent driving.  Indeed, you “have to wonder.”

As a computer nerd, he gets business from Google searches and the notoriety of his one and only published book, First, Plug It In. It was one of Woolcott Publishing’s better-selling titles, but Woolcott was strictly local and he didn’t have a hope the book would ever make him rich.  Micah Mortimer is a variation on Aaron Woolcott of Tyler’s A Beginner’s Goodbye. 

It is Tyler’s hat tip to that antecedent novel and character who is the publisher of Woolcott Publishing.  By the way, the firm’s best seller is Why I Have Decided to Go On Living.  Indeed, the sort of book Micah might have read!

His girlfriend, if you want to call her that as we’re talking about people in their 40’s, Cass, is an elementary school teacher, and they’ve lived together on and off for more than three years.  One can understand that a person such as Micah Mortimer is comfortable with an arrangement that seems to be going nowhere, but Cass? As Tyler comments, they had reached the stage where things had more or less solidified:  compromises arrive at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked.  They had it down to a system, you could say.

Part of his routine is a run in the morning.  All of the action in the novel is in the familiar territory of most of Tyler’s novels, Baltimore, although I have come to call her sense of place, ”Tylerville.” He follows the same path on those runs, out so early in the morning that there is no one around.  He likes it like that and finally people begin to emerge by the time he’s heading home.  It is on such a run, early in the novel, that Tyler departs into the realm of magic realism, from which the novel derives its title and thus endemic to the theme.  His vision is not very good so things take on different appearances: On the homeward stretch this morning, he made his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up.  There was something about the rounded top of it, emerging bit by bit as he descended a slope toward an intersection. Why! He always thought to himself.  What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road? Because even though he knew by now that it was only a hydrant, still, for one fleeting instant he had the same delusion all over again, every single morning.

Indeed, why that vision, and why does he have dreams while he sleeps of a baby beckoning to him in supermarket?

Suddenly, the first complication in the novel arises, Micah finding a young man sitting on his step, Brink Adams.  He is the son of a former girlfriend, Lorna Bartell, from college.  He thinks Micah might be his father.  Seeing Brink, who is really not his son, he remembers that dream:  The image rose up in his mind of the baby in the supermarket, watching him so expectantly. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that prophetic dreams were not much use if their meaning emerged only in hindsight. 

He feels, however, a certain responsibility towards Brink and allows him to stay overnight, Micah urging him to call his mother.  He does not.  So Micah says call or leave and leave he does..  Micah immediately suffers regret:  He had handled this all wrong, he realized.  But even given a second chance, he wasn’t sure what he’d do differently.  Tyler cuts her protagonist some slack.  She does love her characters, even those who might not act on a second chance.

Allowing Brink to stay over, while Cass was having apartment house difficulties, creates the next complication, her sudden decision to break up with Micah.  Cass calls and drops that bombshell because he didn’t offer for her to move in with him while she was having those apartment issues, and instead, briefly took in this stranger, Brink, in the office bedroom.  This stuns him, never associating the two. “That never even crossed my mind! I didn’t even know you were willing to move in!  Is that what this is about?  You all at once think we ought to change the rules?” “No, Micah,” she said. “I know that you are you.” Indeed, a revelatory statement by Cass. He meekly accepts this judgement putting his phone into his pocket and staring out into space.  He confesses to himself though that he hated it when women expected you to read their minds.

He remembers when he first met Cass.  He was making a tech call at an elementary school where Cass taught.  The class was not happy that they had to go to a retirement home to Christmas carol, objecting that the residents “smell bad and the old ladies keep reaching out to us with their clutchy, grabby hands.  And here Tyler shines in her narrative, showing her increasing sensitivity to the matter of aging as she has in her last few novels, as Cass says: "I'd like you to look at this from another angle. Some of those people get to see children only once a year at Christmas, when our school comes to carol. And even the grown-ups they knew are mostly gone. Their parents are gone, their friends are gone, their husbands or wives gone-whole worlds gone. Even their brothers and sisters, often. They remember something that happened when they were, say, nine years old-same age as you all are now-but nobody else alive remembers it too. You don't think that's hard? You'll be singing to a roomful of broken hearts, I tell you. Try thinking of that when you decide you don't want to bother doing it." Ridiculously, Micah had felt touched, although in his own experience most old people were relentlessly cheery.

On the spot he asks her out to the movies.   She searched his face for a moment.  She seemed to be trying to make up her mind about him…”And I do like going to the movies,” she said. ..”Well, then,” he told her. And he couldn’t keep from grinning.  It was her speech to the children that had won him. “A roomful of broken hearts”! He liked that phrase.  And so does the reader.

Is it no wonder they then get together? Cass “completes” him.  He just doesn’t really know it, yet.  But his family does, all his sisters wondering where Cass is at a family gathering, vintage Tyler, everyone talking over everyone else. Tumult, the opposite of Micah’s ordered life. They were really looking forward to Cass’ appearance as much if not more so than brother Micah.  They are incredulous that Micah doesn’t grasp the issue.  So, Cass broke up with you because you gave your guest room to the son of an ex-girlfriend that you don’t even see anymore?”  This leave him with the thought: he liked his family a lot, but they made him crazy sometimes.

And now Tyler has Micah dancing to a cacophony of complications, guilt over throwing Brink out, guilt about not trying, yet, to find and contact Brink’s mother, Lorna, guilt about not being sensitive to Cass, and feeling berated by his family.  He starts first by trying to contact Lorna to let her know her son is safe, tracing her via the Internet and then emailing her. 

The next morning he’s out for his daily run, again noticing that that early no one is out, and daydreaming what if a neutron bomb made it permanent?  No one for him to deal with.  How idyllic that might be?  No complications.  No effort to live. He runs in a trance.  Until, once again, the hydrant which he mistakes for a redhead appears, his giving his usual shake of the shoulders at how repetitious this thought was, how repetitious all his thoughts were, how they ran in a deep rut and how his entire life ran in a rut, really.  And really they do.

Lorna does not email or call but arrives, finding his address by Googling “computer repair” in Baltimore and found “Tech Hermit…it was what the girls in my dorm used to call you.”…”I guess I’m pretty predictable.”  She didn’t disagree.

After discussing the matter of her son with Lorna, she leaves with her contact numbers if Brink shows up again. He goes out on a computer call, but returning to his apartment, the place gave off a kind of hollow sound, it seemed to him.  Nobody said “You’re home!” Or “Welcome Back.”  He finds some of Cass’ overnight clothes and goes into a reverie about her and her clothes: “The sweater matched her eyes exactly, but when he'd once  pointed that out she had said it was the other way around; her eyes matched the sweater. "Whatever color I wear, my eyes just go along with it," she'd told him, and then, nudging him playfully in the ribs, "You should see me when I wear red!" Remembering that now, he smiled.

Maybe red was a premonition all along?  Or the red fire hydrant?  And the baby dream?  Micah’s sister Ada has an opinion on that one: it’s a sign from your subconscious that you’re ready for the next stage of life. But, is he?

Brink indeed returns to Micah’s apartment, agrees to be picked up by his mom and step dad.  Micah has filled his obligation.  Good man. He and Lorna have a heart to heart about Micah’s opinion that he turns women off, “it’s like all at once they remember somewhere else they’d prefer to be. But in discussing this with his ex-girl friend from college, it begins to dawn on him that even their love was not the perfect one he imagined it to be, and Lorna delivers one of the themes of the novel: “ can think back on your life and almost believe it was laid out for you in advance, like this plain clear path you were destined to take even if it looked like nothing but brambles and stobs at the time.”

With Cass, Lorna and her son gone, Micah is dreaming more, becoming more disheveled and Tyler moves into the novel’s denouement with a gathering momentum as Micah goes through the motions of his Tech Hermit calls, his apartment house responsibilities, with an inner dialog underway which is disturbed only by Tyler making a rare departure to the other reality as he listens to talk radio in the car discussing police violence.  It is a brief foray outside the terrarium of Micah’s world as he struggles with his very identity.  The last chapter inexorably, powerfully moves him towards a resolution, but is it one in which Tyler pushes him further into damnation or into the light of redemption?  As I was reading this suspenseful chapter, I thought it was going decidedly in one direction, and I’ll have to leave it there as it would be a spoiler to reveal my expectations or the reality. It is a remarkable piece of writing.

Tyler never fails to engage and delight.  As I said at the onset, she is our very own Jane Austen, but with a modern sensibility, and now that both John Updike (who admired her writing) and Philip Roth are gone she is indisputably one of our leading writers of fiction. Redhead by the Side of the Road is vintage Anne Tyler. Her, now, more than twenty novels a treasure trove of American life observed and deciphered.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler Marks our Time(s)

Time, time, time see what's become of me (Paul Simon, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”).  That pretty much describes the action of most of Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance.  I have the distinction of having read nearly all her novels (maybe all) and this one, as well, is set in what I’ve come to call “Tylerville.”  It’s a mythical place where everyday people live, made memorable by Tyler’s gift for characterization.  Tylerville is a place in Baltimore, if you want to put it in a real world context.

We follow the main character in the novel, Willa Drake, kaleidoscopically, chapters devoted to 1967, 1977, 1997, 2017 from the vicinity of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Coronado, California, to Tucson, Arizona, and finally and fittingly, Baltimore.  In her last novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, it was the protagonist’s son who ends up searching for his own sense of belonging and place.  In this novel, it is Willa.

In her “Tyleresque,” prose we learn of the deaths of her parents, her two sons, Ian (now living in Colorado, and mostly out of cell phone range) and Sean (in Baltimore, explaining Willa’s connection there in part), the death of her first husband, her estrangement from her sister, Elaine, and her wifely obligations to her second husband, Peter, a semi retired lawyer who calls her, affectionately (but personality appropriate) “little one.”  As years wear on, she also becomes somewhat estranged from her two sons and finds herself living without purpose.  Until the call from Baltimore, and to tell more about the nature of that call is a spoiler.

In Baltimore we are introduced to a number of quirky characters, so typical in Tyler’s works.  She has the ability to make memorable people, all the pieces needed for a character driven novel.  Be prepared to share Willa’s journey with her collection of friends in Tylerville, Denise and her daughter Cheryl, Mrs. Minton, Callie, Ben Gold, Erland, Sir Joe, Hal, Richard, Barry, and let’s not forget Robert, the cat and Airplane, the dog.  All have their lives changed or touched in some way by Willa and in turn so is Willa’s.

At first I found the novel slow, even maudlin.  Did I care about Willa or just feel sorry for her?  Just at the point of fish or cut bait, I’m hooked by Tyler as the plot gathers momentum and Willa makes the transition from an after-thought in a male dominated world to something she desperately needs: to be needed.   At 61 she laments not having a grandchild, not having a daughter and through a slow osmotic process SHE adopts not only a family, but a place to live that finally feels like home.

Time and aging hang heavily on every page.  Willa’s father explains how he finally dealt with his days alone after the death of her mother (after Willa lost her first husband): “I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to.  But, on the other hand, there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate.  Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning.  Working on something fine in my workshop.  Watching a baseball game on TV.” She thought that over. “But…”she said.  He waited. “But…is that ENOUGH?” she asked him. “Well, yes it turns out that it is,”he said.

Three pre-teen girls play a game, each standing behind the other, their arms extended, all six moving in stiff, stop-and-start arcs in time to the clicking sounds that Willa could hear now punctuating the music.  “It’s a clock dance!” Cheryl shouted, briefly peeking out from the tail end. “Can’t you tell?”  Of course: those clicks were tick-tocks.  Those arms were clock hands, jerking in time to the tick-tocks like the hands of those stutter clocks on the walls of grade-school classrooms.

But when Willa thinks of her own version of a clock dance many pages later, it is a powerful reminder of our mortality: If Willa were to invent a clock dance, it wouldn’t look like the one the three little girls had shown her.  No, hers would feature a woman racing across the stage from left to right, all the while madly whirling so that the audience saw only a spinning blur of color before she vanished into the wings, POOF!  Just like that.  Gone.

The theme of the novel and the last chances presented to Willa couldn’t be any clearer than that.  Change or poof, gone.

In my review of her last novel,  A Spool of Blue Thread I said Tyler was showing her age.  Even more so here, now three years later.  Although Willa is “only” a 61 year old, I look to another character, Mrs. Minton as the future one Anne Tyler fears, a widow (like Tyler who lost her husband in 1997, the same year Willa loses her husband) who now uses a walker (“just for balance”), and when Willa first sees her “out of her housecoat” notes: Her skirt was unbecomingly short, barely knee-length, so that her blue-white mottle shins showed, and her sleeveless blouse exposed her stringy arms.  Aging is not a pretty process in Tyler’s eyes, but what is the alternative?  BTW, I am just slightly younger than Tyler and maybe that’s why I relate so much to her world-view.

Her detailed descriptions, noting all things relating to her characters, make her our very own Jane Austen, although sweeping love affairs are not her province.  Tyler is one of our finest living novelists, still going strong.  I only buy her books in hardcover, to enjoy them as permanent additions to our bookshelves, and as evidence that we still know how to make a real book.  As I concluded in my last review, “Tyler may be showing her age, but clearly with no diminution of her writing skills.”

Sunset Oct. 6 2018

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tyler Shows Her Age in A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne Tyler has joined my growing group of septuagenarians and her latest novel A Spool of Blue Thread seems to profoundly reflect her initiation.  We now deal with the travails of aging in its broadest sense, the decline of our own physicality, our illnesses, deaths of friends and loved ones, and anxiety about the passage of time as we near the end of the hour glass.  For many of us, there are our adult children, and our grandchildren (not in my case) to worry about, in a changing world that bears no resemblance to the one we grew up in.   Essentially, this is what Anne Tyler speaks to in A Spool of Blue Thread, a metaphor that ties together four generations of the Whitshank family, which Tyler describes as being such a recent family that they were short on family history. They didn’t have that many stories to choose from.  They had to make the most of what they could get.

I loved this novel, for personal reasons as well as admiring the Tyler’s writing skills.  She is one of America’s best living writers. In my praise that follows I’ve tried to avoid “spoilers” but as one friend pointed out when I shared this before posting (she had read the novel as well), I reveal “critical piece[s] of the evolution of the family’s story and relationships” – ones that she would prefer to discover when reading the novel.  I could argue this point, but I’m issuing a “spoiler alert” just in case any reader of this entry doesn’t want to know too much about the book before reading it.

This is a family history told in typical “Tyleresque,” and set mostly in the “Tylertown” of Baltimore.  The women are mostly stalwartly idiosyncratic homebodies.  The men are mostly craftsmen, homebuilders. At the top of the Whitshank family tree there is the grandfather, Junior, and his wife, Linnie Mae.  We learn that she had basically forced herself upon him, first as a 13 year old and five years later, after Junior moved to a boarding house in Baltimore (and completely forgot Linnie Mae, his own family, the feeling mutual, hence being short on family history) Linnie Mae just turned up, suitcase in hand, to move in with him, although they had no contact during those five years:  She was the bane of his existence.  She was a millstone around his neck.  That night back in ’31 when he went to collect her from the train station and found her waiting out front – her unevenly hemmed gray coat too skimpy for the Baltimore winters, her floppy wide-brimmed felt hat so outdated that even Junior could tell – he’d had the incongruous thought that she was like mold on lumber.  You think you’ve scrubbed it off but one day you see it’s crept back again.  So, indeed, she did creep back into his life but he finally acknowledges that his ultimate success in the building business was in part due to her people skills.  (Junior is a craftsman, a perfectionist, but not very good with the customers.)  He builds a home for a Mr. and Mrs. Brill, but: This was the house of his life, after all (the way a different type of man would have a love of his life), and against any sort of logic he clung to the conviction that he would someday be living here.

And indeed in due course they did, bringing up their two children, daughter Merrick and son Redcliffe, in that home.  “Red” follows in his father’s footsteps with the business, marrying Abby (the main character in the novel) and they have four children, Amanda (who had a bossy streak), Jeannie (tomboyish when young), Denny (whose story becomes the beginning and end of the novel) and Stem (who was adopted when Denny was four).  Stem is called “Douglas” by his wife, Nora, later on in the novel.  Both Amanda and Jeannie ultimately marry men with the same name, Hugh, so…their husbands were referred to as ‘Amanda’s Hugh’ and ‘Jeannie’s Hugh’, just another “family quirk.”  Naturally, Red and Abby ultimately move into the house Junior built, the bedrock for the Whitshank chronicles.

The opening chapter reads almost like a self-contained short story – about the black sheep of the family, Denny.  Personality is established at an early age, and this incident takes place when he was 9 or 10: One time in the grocery store, when Denny was in a funk for some reason, "Good Vibrations" started playing over the loud- speaker. It was Abby's theme song, the one she always said she wanted for her funeral procession, and she began dancing to it. She dipped and sashayed and dum-da-da-dummed around Denny as if he were a maypole, but he just stalked on down the soup aisle with his eyes fixed straight ahead and his fists jammed into his jacket pockets. Made her look like a fool, she told Red when she got home. (She was trying to laugh it off.) He never even glanced at her! She might have been some crazy lady! And this was when he was nine or ten, nowhere near that age yet when boys find their mothers embarrassing. But he had found Abby embarrassing from earliest childhood, evidently. He acted as if he'd been assigned the wrong mother, she said, and she just didn't measure up.

As a young adult, Denny comes and goes, disappears for large amounts of time and then suddenly shows up.  And whenever he did come home, he was a stranger. Naturally, parents try to “figure out” their troubled offspring:
‘It’s because I didn’t shield him properly.’ Abby guessed.
‘Shield him from what?’ Red asked.
‘Oh…never mind.’
‘Not from me,’ Red told her.
‘If you say so.’
‘I’m not taking the rap for this, Abby.’
At such moments, they hated each other.

Doesn’t that have the ring of truth, universally applied to many families?  I’ve heard that conversation time and time again between my own parents.

Denny is shipped off to a small private college, but that didn’t change his nature. He was still the Whitshank’s mystery child.  He bounced around from here to there, occasionally keeping in touch by phone, Tyler describing it with her typical humorous slant: He had this way of talking on the phone that was so intense and animated; his parents could start to believe that he felt some urgent need for connection. For weeks at a time he might call every Sunday until they grew to expect it, almost depend on it, but then he'd fall silent for months and they had no means of reaching him. It seemed perverse that someone so mobile did not own a mobile phone. By now Abby had signed them up for caller ID, but what use was that? Denny was OUT OF AREA. He was UNKNOWN CALLER. There should have been a special display for him: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.

Denny suddenly marries.  The Whitshank family is invited to the wedding in NYC.  The preacher was a bike messenger with a license from the Universal Life Church.  Denny and his wife Carla have a baby, Susan, with whom at one stretch Denny regularly takes (without Carla) to visit his parents.  Suddenly, no word again, and it goes on for three years and after 9/11 Abby can take it no longer, afraid for her son and their granddaughter and they finally trace him.  After several failed attempts to contact him, they ask his older sister Amanda to call.  Abby and Red stand by the phone as the call is placed.  Denny answers.  Although the Whitshank’s couldn’t hear what Denny said after Amanda identified herself, they could imagine by what Amanda continued to say: Someday you’re going to be a middle-aged man thinking back on your life, and you'll start wondering what your family's been up to. So you'll hop on a train and come down, and when you get to Baltimore it will be this peaceful summer afternoon and these dusty rays of sunshine will be slanting through the skylight in Penn Station. You'll walk on through and out to the street, where nobody is waiting for you, but that's okay; they didn't know you were coming. Still, it feels kind of odd standing there all alone, with the other passengers hugging people and climbing into cars and driving away. You go to the taxi lane and you give the address to a cabbie. You ride through the city looking at all the familiar sights-the row houses, the Bradford pear trees, the women sitting out on their stoops watching their children play. Then the taxi turns onto Bouton Road and right away you get a strange feeling. There are little signs of neglect at our house that Dad would never put up with: blistered paint and gap-toothed shutters. Mismatched mortar patching the walk, rubber treads nailed to the porch steps-all these Harry Homeowner fixes Dad has always railed against. You take hold of the front-door handle and you give it that special pull toward you that it needs before you can push down the thumb latch, but it's locked. You ring the doorbell, but it's broken. You call, 'Mom? Dad?' No one answers. You call, 'Hello?' No one comes running; no one flings open the door and says, 'It's you! It's so good to see you! Why didn't you let us know? We'd have met you at the station! Are you tired? Are you hungry? Come in!' You stand there a while, but you can't think what to do next. You turn and look back toward the street, and you wonder about the rest of the family. 'Maybe Jeannie,' you say. 'Or Amanda.' But you know something, Denny? Don't count on me to take you in, because I'm angry. I'm angry at you for leading us on such a song and dance all these years, not just these last few years but all the years, skipping all those holidays and staying away from the beach trips and missing Mom and Dad's thirtieth anniversary and their thirty-fifth and Jeannie's baby and not attending my wedding that time or even sending a card or calling to wish me well.  But most of all, Denny, most of all: I will never forgive you for consuming every last drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.

This is a poignant piece of writing, a cautionary note about the passage of time and the dangers of ignoring family and the ordinary details of our lives.  Abby wonders how they settled for so little when it came to their prodigal son. She says, ‘would you have believed it? Sometimes whole days go by when I don’t give him a thought.’  This is not natural! Red said, ‘It’s perfectly natural. Like a mother cat when her kittens are grown.  You’re showing very good sense.’ And this is just the first chapter, and it sets the stage for everything that follows. 

Tyler though does not construct the novel chronologically, instead moving back and forth in time. Regarding the grandfather, Junior, in her usual good humor Tyler explains -- If it seems odd to call a patriarch ‘Junior,’ there was a logical explanation.  Junior’s true name was Jurvis Roy, shortened at some point to J.R. and then re-expanded, accordion-like, to Junior.  As noted, Junior builds the house of his dreams for Mr. Brill, knowing full well in his heart that eventually he would be able to buy it, which he did.  He fidgets with it for the rest of his life as a builder, head of Whitshank Construction, then carried on by his son Red who moves his family into the house.  The house stands as a bulwark in juxtaposition to the fragility of the family.

Then another time leap to Abby who comes from another section of Baltimore and marries Red.  Might Tyler’s description of Abby match up in some ways to her own? As a girl, she'd been a fey sprite of a thing. She'd worn black turtlenecks in winter and peasant blouses in summer; her hair had hung long and straight down her back while most girls clamped their pageboys into rollers every night. She wasn't just poetic but artistic, too, and a modern dancer, and an activist for any worthy cause that came along. You could count on her to organize her school's Canned Goods for the Poor drive and the Mitten Tree. Her school was Merrick's school, private and girls-only and posh, and though Abby was only a scholarship student, she was the star there, the leader. In college, she plaited her hair into cornrows and picketed for civil rights. She graduated near the top of her class and became a social worker, what a surprise, venturing into Baltimore neighborhoods that none of her old schoolmates knew existed. Even after she married Red (whom she had known for so long that neither of them could remember their first meeting), did she turn ordinary? Not a chance. She insisted on natural childbirth, breast-fed her babies in public, served her family wheat germ and home-brewed yogurt, marched against the Vietnam War with her youngest astride her hip, sent her children to public schools. Her house was filled with her handicrafts-macrame plant hangers and colorful woven serapes. She took in strangers off the streets, and some/of them stayed for weeks. There was no telling who would show up at her dinner table.

Skipping to the very present, we learn that Abby has a form of dementia.   This begins a progression of events and the eventual rallying of the family, even Denny.   On one lovely day, with the family on the porch Denny was recollecting to Stem (who is now running the business for aged Red) about his earliest recollection of his grandfather ripping out the walkway and resetting the stones, Abby comments ‘Oh, you men, stop talking shop!....Weather like this always takes me back to the day I fell in love with Red’…The others smiled.  They knew the story well….’It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon’ Abby began. Which was the way she always began, exactly the same words, every single time. On the porch, everybody relaxed. Their faces grew smooth, and their hands loosened in their laps. It was so restful to be sitting here with family, with the birds talking in the trees and the crosscut-sawing of the crickets and the dog snoring at their feet and the children calling, ‘Safe! I'm safe!’

That’s as good as it gets for any writer, to be able to conjure up such images.  I read and reread the passage again and again.  Even in my own twisted childhood there were times I felt “I’m safe.”

For some time the adult children, along with spouses and Abby and Red’s grandchildren come and go to help their aging parents.  There we learn much about the internal sibling rivalry, the hurts, the jealousies, and how these emotions relate to their upbringing.  In particular, Stem (Douglas) and Denny come to blows, literally. 

Abby, even in her condition, comes upon certain truths about life such as, you wake in the morning, you’re feeling fine, but all at once you think, ‘Something’s not right.  Something’s off somewhere; what is it?’  And then you remember that it’s your child – whichever one is unhappy.

She is seeing a doctor about her condition but she wants to discuss philosophical issues: ‘And time,’ she would tell Dr. Wiss. ‘Well, you know about time. How slow it is when you're little and how it speeds up faster and faster once you're grown. Well, now it's just a blur. I can't keep track of it anymore! But it's like time is sort of ... balanced. We're young for such a small fraction of our lives, and yet our youth seems to stretch on forever. Then we're old for years and years, but time flies by fastest then. So it all comes out equal in the end, don't you see.’  I’m sure even Einstein would agree.  It’s all relative!

To go on with more about Abby’s fate is to reveal too much.  The house of the Brills, then Junior’s, and then Red’s stands steadfast front and center, almost like another character in the novel, but even that eventually devolves.  Everything changes over the course of time, but the spool of blue thread runs from generation to generation to generation.  Tyler captures this in perhaps her most ambitious novel ever, showing her abiding sympathy for her characters, and there are many in this novel.

It fittingly ends as it begins, focused on peripatetic Denny, who is searching for his own sense of belonging and place, as he boards a train for New Jersey on the eve of hurricane Sandy, an interesting image to leave the reader with towards the conclusion of this wonderful, evocative, but essentially melancholy, novel.  Tyler may be showing her age, but clearly with no diminution of her writing skills. 
My grandfather's Richmond Hill family home circa 1930's