A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

>> Saturday, August 15, 2015

TITLE: A Spool of Blue Thread
AUTHOR: Anne Tyler

PAGES: 368

SETTING: Contemporary and 20th century US
TYPE: Fiction

“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, humor, 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.

A Spool of Blue Thread is another of the books on the Man Booker longlist. I seem to have started with the female authors, and I suspect that's the way I'll keep going for a little while, as those books are the ones that appeal to me the most.

This is the story of a family, the Whitshanks. It's about the individuals that make it up, but it's also about a lot more than that, about the things that make them a more than just a collection of individuals with the same name. It's about the relationships between them all and about the stories that they've accumulated and give them a sense of themselves.

We start out in the present, with Abby and Red Whitshank and their grown-up children and their children. But we don't stay there for the whole book, and we get to see what's behind some of those stories that the family tells, as well as the ones they don't.

It's a very domestic book, one about a pretty ordinary family, and if you look at it superficially, there's nothing unusual going on. Nothing hugely dramatic, just the usual stuff that happens in normal families. Big stuff for those families, but nothing surprising or particularly remarkable. It's boring, you might say. You'd be wrong. I was completely gripped by this story. I think the key is the way this feels true. Every few pages I'd find a little insight that made me stop in my tracks, a little twist in a character that made me reevaluate and see them in a different way, a little moment that made me want to cry. It's beautiful writing, with characters drawn by just a couple of strokes who feel much more real than some characters after an entire novel, and a low-key, subtle humour that, nonetheless, often had me laughing out loud.

It cut a bit too close sometimes. Denny, one of Abby and Red's sons, felt so familiar that it was on the verge of being upsetting. Tyler shows the way he punishes the parents with his absence and withdrawal so effectively that they end up walking on eggshells around him, terrified of asking any question and being punished for their nosiness by Denny disappearing again, and I kept thinking "Yes, yes, that's what he does!" There's also the fear of parents getting old, something I'm experiencing at the moment, only here we also see it from the point of view of the parents themselves, which was something I probably really needed to see.

So yeah, this is all about about domestic life and families, and I love it that this is recognised as valuable and important and deserving of a Booker nomination.

I read an Anne Tyler book many, many years ago (The Accidental Tourist) and it didn't make a huge impression on me. If A Spool of Blue Thread is a good example of what her writing is like, I suspect I might have been a bit too young for her at the time (I was in my mid-teens, I think). I look forward to exploring her backlist, including reading The Accidental Tourist again. I'm sure I'll appreciate her more these days.



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