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

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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.

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