Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Spool of Blue ThreadSynopsis:

(via Goodreads)

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.

My thoughts:

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.

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The details:

Title: A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Bond Street Books
Publication date: February 20, 2015
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Library

Flashback Friday: Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight — and you’re invited to join in!

Here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

(first published 1982)

From Goodreads:

Pearl Tull is nearing the end of her life but not of her memory. It was a Sunday night in 1944 when her husband left the little row house on Baltimore’s Calvert Street, abandoning Pearl to raise their three children alone: Jenny, high-spirited and determined, nurturing to strangers but distant to those she loves; the older son, Cody, a wild and incorrigible youth possessed by the lure of power and money; and sweet, clumsy Ezra, Pearl’s favorite, who never stops yearning for the perfect family that could never be his own.

Now Pearl and her three grown children have gathered together again–with anger, hope, and a beautiful, harsh, and dazzling story to tell.

I went through a period in the 1980s/1990s when I just couldn’t get enough of Anne Tyler’s books, and this was the one that started it all for me. No matter the plot, Anne Tyler’s books tend to be about ordinary people just dealing with life, its joys and its disappointments, but full of warmth, honesty, and a fresh tone that makes her writing totally accessible. Soon after reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I also read A Slipping Down Life, The Accidental Tourist, and Searching for Caleb, and have read other books by this author in the years since.

What makes Anne Tyler’s books memorable are the flawed characters and the challenges and crises they face — some more successfully than others. Her books are not large in scope, but rather portray small slices of life that feel real and possible.

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join the Flashback Friday fun, write a blog post about a book you love (please mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the Flashback Friday host!) and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!