Posts Tagged ‘Anne Tyler’

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler – Back to Baltimore


‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler (2020) – 192 pages

In a review of Anne Tyler’s early novel ‘Searching for Caleb’ for the New Yorker in 1975, John Updike wrote “Funny and lyric and true, exquisite in its details and ambitious in its design…This writer is not merely good, she is wickedly good.” Updike took an interest in Tyler’s work and reviewed her next four novels as well, thus launching Tyler’s career into the stratosphere where she has remained since then. The English novelist Nick Hornby has stated that his ambition was to be a male Anne Tyler.

I have read nearly every one of Anne Tyler’s twenty-three novels, even the first four which she doesn’t like anymore but which I thought were very good. All of her novels take place in Baltimore, and that city has Anne Tyler bus tours for tourists except during the lock down. Tyler’s subject has always been the inexplicable personal mysteries in our ordinary routine day-to-day lives. She finds the fascination in even the most mundane of lives. Her novels of ordinary people connect with us readers on a visceral level.


Micah Mortimer in ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ is still another of Anne Tyler’s gentle, cautious, fastidious male characters who view women, especially women with whom they might have a close relationship, as disruptive and a source of problems and thus trouble. He is in his forties and has never been married. In many ways Micah is the archetype for most of the males that appear in Tyler’s novels. He is seemingly happy with his life in his small apartment which he keeps fussily clean. Micah is a home computer software guy who runs his own small door-to-door business in Baltimore. He has a girlfriend Cass who is a school teacher.

Tyler starts the novel with these lines about Micah:

“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.”

Etched in stone? That was the problem for me. Anne Tyler has used this same type of male character in so many of her novels, it’s almost like she etches them in stone. These quiet, finicky, mild guys have become almost a formula for Tyler. The novel had somewhat of a “been there, done that” feel for me. This guy Micah seemed like nearly every other male character who has ever shown up in an Anne Tyler novel.

I suppose I would have been bowled over by ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ if I had not read so much Anne Tyler before.


Grade:    B



‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler – Furniture and Domestic Family Bliss

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler    (2015) – 358 pages   Grade: B

tyler spool blue thread_0

In ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’, Anne Tyler has the good sense to kill off one of her major characters just when we were getting monumentally sick of their perkiness.

I feel I’ve earned the right to crack wise about Anne Tyler, because I’ve read 19 out of 20 of her novels through the years since 1977.  Somehow I missed ‘Noah’s Compass’.  Despite my having a little fun at Anne Tyler’s expense, I find her novels insanely readable and often absurdly moving.

This novel is not Tyler’s best.   It probably will not make my end-of-year Top 10 list since I’ve already read two other books this year that are superior to ‘Blue Thread’.   It is too scattershot with scenes spanning four generations and seventy years.   There does not seem to be a unifying theme to the novel beyond domestic family bliss.

The novel begins with a promising plot line about a prodigal son. The son Denny is the black sheep of the Whitshank family in this novel.  It is obvious that Anne Tyler has not a clue what a real black sheep is.  A real black sheep could do a million and one terrible destructive things, but Tyler has him do none of that.  For Tyler, a black sheep would forget to defrost the hamburger for the family dinner or be angry for no good reason.  That is about the extent of human evil in this Tyler novel.

However whatever tension or drama this black sheep brings to the novel is dissipated as other stories and other generations are pursued instead.  If you want a real prodigal son novel, read ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson in which the son is an actual terrible human being.

Also there’s way too much about carpentry and home furnishings in ‘A Spool of Blue Thread.  I realize that furniture is her chosen metaphor for domestic family bliss and that she uses the production and care of furniture to show her characters’ admirable qualities, but still too much furniture over-decorates a room or a novel.

spool_of_thread_3188819aIn Anne Tyler, even the intentions of a twenty-six year old man who does it with a thirteen year-old girl are honorable. This man is not the black sheep but is the patriarch of the family.  This patriarch does build fine woodwork.

But ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ is still Anne Tyler.  Despite my criticisms above, you will be moved.  If you have never read Anne Tyler before, you will find this novel just about the greatest thing.

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