A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler — family life unravelled

Cover of A Spool of Blue Thread, a novel about messy family relationships and secrets by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s novel about four families of the Whitshank family falls into the category of books I consider “enjoyable but not remarkable”. Which makes the inclusion of A Spool of Blue Thread in multiple award lists rather a surprise, particularly when one of those prizes was the 2015 Booker shortlist.

I don’t mean to sound disparaging about Tyler’s novel. It’s a very finely observed study of characters and the intricacies of familial relationships that held my attention over 400 pages. But it didn’t have that uniqueness and originality of style or perspective that I expect in a Booker contender.

A Spool of Blue Thread features the elder Whitshank generation “Junior” and his wife Linnae, about whom little is known, even by their children. He’s a builder, a carpenter much lauded in Baltimore for his craftsmanship. The Whitshaw family home was one he built for a client with meticulous attention to detail, right down to the pantry shelves and cabinet knobs. Now it has “ the comfortably shabby air of a place whose inhabitants had long stopped seeing it.”

The younger generation includes their son Red (a builder like his father) and daughter in law Abby, their four children (Amanda, Jeanie, Dennie and Stem) and their respective partners and children. Keeping track of everyone and how they were related, proved challenging at first so I ended up making a who’s who list.

The Whitshaws, though not a family with a long lineage, nevertheless consider themselves specially close, held together by stories, told and re-told over the years until they became fact.

How “Junior” became the owner of the house on Boulton Road, and how Red’s sister Merrick got a jump up the social ladder when she stole her best friend’s wealthy boyfriend Junior. There’s also the one about the day in 1959 when Abby fell in love with Red, a story that always begins:. “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon.”

The one outlier in all this family togetherness is Red and Abby’s son Denny. He’s been a rebel for most of his life, never really settling to anything. His parents have only a vague idea of where he lives and what he does with his time. He just calls out of the blue and announces he’s married and has a daughter.

Denny doesn’t buy into the family legends that have been created over the decades. “You’re just following the family tradition,” he tells his younger brother, “.. , the wish-I-had-what-someone-else-has tradition – till they do have it.”  As a fringe member of the family, he understands the underlying tensions in this family far better than most other members of Whitshank clan. The idea of family cohesion unravels like a spool of thread as the novel progresses and secrets are exposed.

Three quarters of the way through the book, Anne Tyler, inserts a section which unravels the biggest myth of all: the relationship between the family founders, Junior and Linnae. This backstory feels like an intrusion but does serve to illustrate how the Witshank world has been built on sordid foundations.

I’m still not sure though, that I understand what point Tyler is trying to make in A Spool Of Blue Thread. That families are complex and relationships messy? Nothing really new in that. Or is the message that we can become so wrapped up in what we want to believe, that we no longer see the obvious? Again, nothing remarkable about that.

In the end I’m left feeling that the book was entertaining but not memorable. The prose flowed, the dialogue felt realistic and the setting was vivid. But it didn’t add up to anything special. I much preferred Penelope Lively’s generational saga Family Album which covered similar territory but had a sharper focus.

A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler: Footnotes

Anne Tyler’s novel was published in 2015 by Bond Street Books. It appeared on the list of nominees for: Booker Prize, Women’s Prize for Fiction, Andrew Carnegie Medal and the International Dublin Literary Award. Anne Tyler is the author of 23 novels, beginning with If Morning Ever Comes. Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons , was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. 

This is book number 25 in my #21 in 21 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves. I’ve actually read 25 books from the TBR but am behind with the reviews.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

27 thoughts on “A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler — family life unravelled

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  • December 6, 2021 at 11:07 am
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    You don’t sound very enthusiastic about this, but I might still pick it up as I always find stories about family dynamics very intriguing.

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    • December 10, 2021 at 4:24 pm
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      It’s true that I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. If it hadn’t been so well written I think I would have given up on it. If you like family dynamics though, I would recommend Family Album by Penelope Fitzgerald

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      • December 14, 2021 at 3:13 pm
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        That’s also on my TBR list.

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  • December 6, 2021 at 9:47 am
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    A very fair assessment – I did however really enjoy Clock Dance, which came next if you don’t count Vinegar Girl, which is a retelling so a bit different. There are some stand-outs in her works but i found the skipping between generations here a bit odd. I’ve added your review to my project page here (also useful if any of your commenters fancy seeing reviews of the whole lot!) https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/about/anne-tyler-re-read-project-2021/

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    • December 10, 2021 at 4:26 pm
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      I’d forgotten all about your Anne Tyler project sorry Liz – so many to keep track of right now. I’m not keen on re-tellings but will take a look at Clock Dance (I’ve not given up on Tyler at all)

      Reply
  • December 6, 2021 at 12:00 am
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    I keep meaning to try some of her works, but I will try to be a bit selective. Your review has convinced me that I won’t be starting with this one.

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  • December 5, 2021 at 1:41 pm
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    Breathing Lessons was excellent.

    I’ve just read Readhead by the Side of the Road and I have the same feeling as you. It’s good, it flaws seemlessly, I enjoyed the ride but it won’t stay with me beyond the “I had a good reading time”.

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    • December 10, 2021 at 4:28 pm
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      Well that answers a question for me – I was wondering whether to try “Redhead” but I don’t want another ok experience. will take a look at Breathing Lessons instead

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      • December 12, 2021 at 9:35 am
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        Breathing Lessons is really good. Happy reading!

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  • December 5, 2021 at 12:00 pm
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    I liked it a lot… but I’m a big lover of character studies so, that explains it.

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    • December 10, 2021 at 4:28 pm
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      I can definitely see the appeal in that respect.

      Reply
  • December 5, 2021 at 6:32 am
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    This was my first Tyler and I too was underwhelmed and I recall then being recommended another, which I did read and enjoy more, A Ladder of Years.

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    • December 5, 2021 at 9:29 am
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      That’s really interesting to hear, Claire, as I tried to read this novel a few years ago but failed to get very far with it. There wasn’t anything specific that I could put my finger on at the time, other than a general lack of engagement or involvement with the story on my part. It was also my first Tyler (I think), and I came away from it thinking that she wasn’t really for me. That said, A Ladder of Years seems to be a favourite among Tyler fans, so I might try it at some point if a copy comes my way…

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      • December 10, 2021 at 4:30 pm
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        It’s been interesting to see how many people felt there was something missing when they read her books.

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    • December 10, 2021 at 4:29 pm
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      I haven’t heard of that one – will have to check it out. I did feel she is a very good writer so it might be that it was just the books wasn’t right for but a different title will appeal more

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  • December 5, 2021 at 6:06 am
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    I’ve read a few Tylers and have been following Liz Dexter’s (Adventures in Reading, Running ..) re-reading of them over the course of this year. They are generally interesting, complicated family stories and fill in a day. Good well-written General Fiction. I think the big book prizes are like the Oscars – overly influenced by money and reputation and with too little emphasis on art and innovation.

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    • December 10, 2021 at 4:31 pm
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      I’m coming to think it was just this book that didn’t work for me but another title might give me a different experience. She does write extremely well so I haven’t reached the point where I’ll rule her out

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    • December 10, 2021 at 4:32 pm
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      It does seem as if you have to choose the right one…

      Reply
  • December 4, 2021 at 8:58 pm
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    I completely agree. It’s more than a while since I’ve read this, but I remember finding it perfectly readable – though underwhelming.

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    • December 10, 2021 at 4:33 pm
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      That’s a good description of where I ended up too Margaret.

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  • December 4, 2021 at 6:28 pm
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    Spool of Thread was my first Tyler and I was so bored!

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    • December 10, 2021 at 4:32 pm
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      To be fair, I wasn’t bored but by the end I did think “was that it?”

      Reply

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