BookBrowse Reviews A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

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A Spool of Blue Thread

by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler X
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2015, 368 pages
    Apr 2016, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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About this Book



A Spool of Blue Thread tells a poignant yet unsentimental story in praise of family in all its emotional complexity.

According to Sonny Mehta, Chairman and Editor in Chief of Alfred A. Knopf Publications, A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of "three generations of the Whitshank family: not just tender moments, but also jealousies, disappointments, more than a few skeletons in the closet - and at the center, the sprawling Baltimore house that has anchored these lives." What Mr. Mehta didn't include in this superb summary was that this family is much like millions of others, with all their trivialities and hapless blunderings through life - in other words, we are all Whitshanks.

This is, of course, Tyler's forte - building a story around the "every persons" she witnesses around her. The Whitshanks are no exception, apart from the fact that they are, in some ways, exceptional. Abby and Red (short for Redcliffe) Whitshank have four children - Amanda, Jeannie (who both marry men named Hugh) and Denny. Then there's Douglas, the boy they call Stem, who they took in on a "permanently temporary" basis after his father died and his mother was out of the picture. The first half of A Spool of Blue Thread looks at this part of the lives of the Whitshanks during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Then Tyler does something unusual; she begins turning back the clock. First, she tells the story of Abby and Red falling in love and their early lives together. Then she slips back to Red's parents - Linnie Mae and Junior and their beginnings. All of this helps us to understand the significance of the house on Bouton Road, and the effect it has on all three generations of Whitshanks.

In fact, the house on Bouton Road is not only essential to this story, it is also Tyler's metaphor for the Whitshank family, and the underlying theme of this novel. A home, no matter how carefully built and no matter how solid its foundations, is never flawless. Neglect causes decay, but time does that too, and there is always something on a house in need of fixing. So too, a family can fall apart if we don't work to straighten out even the little things that go awry, but even if we are attentive to all the troubles in our relationships, nothing can stop the years from taking their toll. This is what I found most fascinating about this novel - how Tyler deconstructs the Whitshank family in the same way that she does the house on Bouton Road.

Of course, a backward looking saga could go on ad infinitum, and for hundreds of pages. Instead, after investigating three generations, Tyler brings us back to the present for the story's conclusion, all in 280 pages. Because of this brevity, she doesn't tie up many loose ends, and leaves us thinking about how these characters will live on after the last page. Thankfully, those questions are actually enjoyable to ponder because Tyler's open style and wholesome prose make us feel so comfortable and familiar with her characters. We feel invested in the Whitshank family members and their journey, as well as the house they live in.

What brings A Spool of Blue Thread together is Tyler's writing style. An excellent example is what Abby says about the day she fell in love with Red. "It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon." Without the inclusion of "yellow-and-green," this would have been a terribly boring sentence; but with this deceptively simple phrase, Tyler suggests so much. Just think about her choice of colors; they make us feel the summer sun, its warmth and its light, coupled with cool grass and the movement of the air through the leaves of shady trees. Tyler's genius is that we get all that with only three strung-together words. These evocative concisions keep us cleverly enthralled throughout.

Simply stated, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a beautifully constructed story, lovingly told with truly realistic and interesting characters.

Reviewed by Davida Chazan

This review was originally published in February 2015, and has been updated for the April 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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