TL;DR: Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Inn is better. (Though A Spool of Blue Thread is still good, of course.)
I received this book for my birthday and cracked it open on its way to the bookcase and read:
Late one July evening in 1994, Red and Abby Whitshank had a phone call from their son Denny. They were getting ready for bed at the time. Abby was standing at the bureau in her slip, drawing hairpins one by one from her scatter sand-colored topknot. Red, a dark, gaunt man in striped pajama bottoms and a white T-shirt, had just sat down on the edge of the bed to take his socks off; so when the phone rang on the nightstand beside him, he was the one who answered. “Whitshank residence,” he said.
And then, “Well, hey there.”
Abby turned from the mirror, both arms still raised to her head.
“What’s that,” he said, without a question mark.
“Huh?” he said. “Oh, what the hell, Denny!”
Abby dropped her arms.
“Hello?” he said. “Wait. Hello? Hello?”
He was silent for a moment, and then he replaced the receiver.
“What?” Abby asked him.
“Says he’s gay.”
“Said he needed to tell me something: he’s gay.” (1)
…and couldn’t put it down.
I brought it to the couch instead and read it in one sitting—well, very nearly. What I most enjoyed about Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is how it ushers the reader into a troubled, fascinating family and makes them feel welcome. With this opening scene, Tyler confirms that Dinner isn’t a one-off. Though Tyler takes a flak for most (all?) of her books having the same tone/temperament/components, I don’t mind the redundancy on account of how well she writes. Tyler writes simple, common scenes that feel intimately relatable even if they’re nothing like anything you’ve personally experienced.
I don’t think it’s wholly fair or relevant to dig up an author’s past works when talking about their latest. It’s just that there are so many similarities in style that I can’t help but think of Dinner. I may need to put more space between Tyler’s books to dissuade comparisons if I’m going to keep reading her. I do think I would have enjoyed Spool more if I was able to consider it solely on its own merits. The Tull family (in Dinner) has more going on; their dysfunction creates interest and suspense. Spool has small revelations about past family scandals, but they’re clarified and minimized until they’re pressed flat into the novel’s soothing tone.
Tyler’s writing is a dream for any lit student. I could have churned out a term paper in an afternoon if allowed to write about the Whitshank’s beautiful home as a metaphor for family and class. Look, Tyler draws introductory parallels herself:
For years they owned next to no furniture, having sunk every last penny into the down payment, but he refused to go out and buy just any old cheap stuff, no sir. “In this house, we insist on quality,” he said. It was downright comical, the number of his sentences that started off with “In this house.” In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even thought the Whitshanks could not possibly have started out Episcopalian. So “this house” really meant “this family,” it seemed. The two were one and the same. (49)
I’m not being remiss in omitting a blurb. There’s not a good way to summarize this book. I’ve been recommending it to friends as “a way to spend time with another of Tyler’s well-crafted families.” There’s not a central struggle to the novel—the reader learns about three generations of the Whitshank family and how they came to own and maintain their large, comfortable home. It’s about the small struggles of the day to day: home, work, and caring for family. Perhaps if there had been more of a central narrative, the end could have had a proper ending instead of trailing off.
Overall: 4.2. Stunningly well-written, but the lack of ending (when it seemed for a moment that there might be one) left me with an “is that all” feeling at the end. It conveys the “end of an era” sentiment that it’s striving for, but it’s too mild to feel satisfying.
Translation: Read this before Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. It’s more fun to read an author from least to best so that each book is a better and more surprising experience without wondering why the author didn’t live up to their own hype.