A freshly observed, joyful and wrenching, funny and true new novel from Anne Tyler
“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon.” This is how Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate togetherness: an indefinable, enviable kind of specialness. But they are also like all families, in that the stories they tell themselves reveal only part of the picture. Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets. from Red’s father and mother, newly-arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red’s grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century, here are four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their anchor.
Brimming with all the insight, humour, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of Anne Tyler’s work, A Spool of Blue Thread tells a poignant yet unsentimental story in praise of family in all its emotional complexity. It is a novel to cherish.
It’s been years since I’ve last read an Anne Tyler novel — and picking up A Spool of Blue Thread is like cozying up with a comfy old blanket and curling up in a favorite chair. It’s homey and warm and familiar, but the familiarity doesn’t take away at all from the sheer pleasure of spending time with it.
In A Spool of Blue Thread, we meet the Whitshanks, a big, sprawling family whose lives seem centered around their beautiful family home with the big front porch, the home that’s been in the family for three generations and was in fact built by the first of the Whitshanks to live in it. The first characters introduced are Abby and Red, a married couple in their seventies who’ve raised four children, have a good, well-worn marriage, and seem to enjoy their lives.
Their children and grandchildren are a source of non-stop discussion and worry, particularly Denny, the black sheep of the family who can always be depended upon to be undependable. Denny disappears for months or years at a time, only to show up or call with an odd or worrying or unexpected announcement that throws the family into a tizzy.
As Abby and Red age, their children become increasingly worried about their ability to live on their own in their big house, and so various children and their children move in to provide care, manage things, and try to sort out the little rivalries and resentments that have built up over the years.
As the story unfolds, early hints about family history are unpacked for the reader. The family may never know much about Junior and Linnie Mae, the original Whitshanks to live in the family home, but late in the book, we finally get their story, and it’s not what it seemed. Likewise, when we finally hear Abby’s version of how she and Red met, it’s surprising and touching all at once.
A Spool of Blue Thread is a quintessential character-driven book. There’s not much plot to speak of — no big drama or mystery or climax. Instead, it’s a study of family and individuals, their desires and frustrations and misunderstandings and dynamics. It’s lovely to see a family unfold to reveal its heart and soul. The Whitshanks have had their share of disappointments and tensions, but they’re still there, together, figuring things out. Beyond a profile of a family, it’s also a moving depiction of the worries of aging parents, from both the parents’ viewpoint as well as the adult children who have to balance their own lives with the complications required by figuring out how to help parents who may or may not be able to function on their own any longer.
As I mentioned, it’s been quite a while since I’ve read anything by this author, although there was a time when I read all of her new books as soon as they came out. I think I’d reached my saturation point somewhere along the line, and I might not have picked up A Spool of Blue Thread if it hadn’t been my book club’s pick for April.
So, yet another reason to proclaim that I love my book club! A Spool of Blue Thread is a perfect domestic novel that’s touching, funny, and beautifully written. I’m so glad to have read it — and it makes me want to go figure out what other Anne Tyler books I’ve missed over the years.
Title: A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Bond Street Books
Publication date: February 20, 2015
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Adult fiction