Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Reading Anne Tyler’s 20th novel  A Spool of Blue Thread, reviewed here, first felt a little like turning to the back of the book before reading it through. This is how it ends, three generations upended, we found out how they came to be and what their origins were at the end.

ladder of yearsI wanted to try another Anne Tyler novel to have a better sense of her work and so I asked around for recommendations and eventually decided on Ladder of Years.

What a great book!

Still set in the same small town Baltimore, another family, this time we are inside the mind of Delia Grinstead, the youngest of three adult sisters, daughters of a local GP who has recently passed away. He had been living with Delia and her husband, who is also a GP, one who took over the practice from her father where Delia remained the administrator, first to her father, then to her husband, never leaving home.

A smooth transition from daughter of the Doctor to wife of the Doctor, the same home, raising three children, taking the same holiday year after year, viewing the same holiday neighbours over the fence year after year, speculating about their family members, having never spoken a word to them.

Delia doesn’t appear disgruntled, but one day while on holiday she walks off down the beach (a bit like our Harold Fry) in her husband’s beach robe and just keeps going.

What follows is something like the winding back of the clock, a version of what her life might have been, had her husband chosen sister number 1 or sister number 2 and not sister number 3, Delia.

It’s not dramatic, it’s almost sensible, if we can use that word about someone who just walks out on their life like that. She expresses no hatred, disappointment or loss, she thinks only about herself in the present and responds always to the requests of others – rather than see fault in her own actions, she interprets others confusion or hurt with, “if they had only asked”, she offers little proactively and yet will respond to anything if asked.

ladderShe is something of an enigma and at first I wondered how she could so easily leave behind her children without much thought, then I wondered if she was menopausal, because at that time women lose a lot of that hormone that makes them so fiercely protective and maternal towards their children, or were they just more grown up and less in need of her?

She doesn’t have a lot to say about her motives, it is as if she acted without understanding the deep need inside her to move. Another reader commented she reminds me of a spoiled youngest born who does just about everything without motivation

I don’t have much of an insight into youngest borns as a type, but Delia was certainly quietly mysterious, I found the novel compelling, without any clear or stated motivation, she was unpredictable and yet ever so conservative.

Brilliantly constructed, a compelling read, I really enjoyed Ladder of Years and was intrigued right up until the last page. And bizarrely, there is also a spool of blue thread in this book, a small detail written twenty years ago(published in 1995), that would one day grow up to become an entire novel of its own.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is an author that is well-known to many and A Spool of Blue Thread is her 20th published novel, said perhaps to be her last.

If like me you haven’t read Anne Tyler before (am I the only one?), you can get an idea of what she’s about from this succinct, sound-bite like feature 10 Things you Need to Know about Anne Tyler by Shelley Marks via The Pool, a hip, online writing, audio and video resource for women, that launched just before Easter. Click on the image below to visit.

The Pool

Anne Tyler writes about family and domestic life in suburban America (Baltimore) and this new novel opens with something of an anti-drama when Abby and Red Whitshank receive a confusing telephone message from their son Denny, who has left home but not exactly settled into whatever it is he intends to do. Abby swings between wanting to just leave him be and being over-anxious to find out what’s going on.

A SpoolThe novel dwells on certain periods when members of the family return home, the four children are all adults in the opening pages and as the back story is filled in, we observe petty grievances, old resentments, current mysteries and a family coming to term with changes as their parents age and may need to move on from the family home.

The book is separated into four parts, starting with Abby and Red in their later years in 1994, sliding back to 1954 just before they began dating, and then even further back to the period when the family home was built by Red’s father Junior, the most intriguing chapters of the book for me, where we hear about how he and his wife Linnie met, the book then returns to the present in Part Four.

The family home could almost be considered a character in itself, the novel concerning the minutiae of family life and events related to that house that was originally built by Red’s father Junior Whitshank, a home he constructed for Mr and Mrs Brill, but one he tended with a love and obsession to detail one would normally reserve for one’s own home. For deep inside, he knew he was building it for himself, he would just have to wait the necessary years – a patience he knew well, and sure enough the opportunity came around when he would indeed reclaim it.

“It was nothing but an architect’s drawing the first time he laid eyes on it. Mr. Ernest Brill, a Baltimore textile manufacturer, had unfurled a roll of blueprints while standing in front of the lot where he and Junior had arranged to meet. And Junior glanced first at the lot and then down at the drawing of the front elevation, which showed a clapboard house with a gigantic front porch, and the words that popped into his head were ‘Why, that’s my house!’ “

Over the years and generations that followed, that home became the repository of memories, events and upbringings whose recollections were as present as the fixings that held the structure together, every inch of the house infused with the presence of family past and present. It is not until we arrive at Part Three that we really understand the significance of the house and what it meant for Junior to have arrived there, thus allowing the next generations to live as they do, in blissful ignorance of their past.

This narration of the present before the past adds an unexpected surprising element to what is otherwise a fairly straightforward domestic saga, the Whitshank’s don’t know much about their origins and the reader too won’t learn what the family will never know until later in the book. It reminds us not to make assumptions about people, not to judge a family by the size of their porch, a book by its cover, and so many other outward appearances that make it easy to create a false image of what lies within.

Spool Blue ThreadA Spool of Blue Thread reminded me in some ways of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, I guess that is the book that comes to mind, when I try to recall if I’ve read anything similar to this.

Ironically, after finishing this book, I read Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years to get more of a feel for her work and about two-thirds the way through, came across another spool of blue thread, which although a causal reference, did make me wonder if this story had been gestating a long time.

A Spool of Blue Thread is long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015.

 

 

 

Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015

lbaileyslogoTwenty books have now been selected that make up the 2015 long list for the Bailey’s (previously The Orange) Prize for Fiction. They will be reduced to six on April 13 and the winner announced at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 June 2015.

Previous winners include Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014) and A.M. Homes for May We Be Forgiven (2013), Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles (2012) and Téa Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife (2011).

Shami Chakrabarti, Chair of judges, had this to say about this year’s selection:

“The Prize’s 20th year is a particularly strong one for women’s fiction.  All judges fought hard for their favourites and the result is a 2015 list of 20 to be proud of – with its mix of genres and styles, first-timers and well-known names from around the world.”

From the list of 20, I have read only one and it was absolutely brilliant, Laline Paull’s The Bees and I am currently just over half through Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread which reminds me of the experience of reading Jonathan Franzen’s family saga The Corrections.

So here it is, the list of twenty books long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction:

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart

Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?

Xiaolu Guo: I Am China

Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief

Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Grace McCleen: The Offering

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Laline Paull: The Bees

Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights

Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

Ali Smith: How to be Both

Sara Taylor: The Shore

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

Jemma Wayne: After Before

PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

The prize is being shadowed by a group of excellent bloggers, including one of my all time favourites Eric at Lonesome Reader, organised by Naomi at The Writes of Women.

They will be reading all the books and many of them have read at least five or six already, that’s where I’ll be heading to decide which books might appeal to me and where I recommend you look for some of the best reviews.

So which books have you read, or plan to read?