A Spool of Blue Thread
Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, 2015
A Spool of Blue Thread is Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel. Like her other novels, most of which I have read, to begin it is like sinking down into a favorite old chair, feet up, fireplace crackling (should it be winter), and fully relaxing into the lives of her characters. Tyler’s gift is the effortless, insightful way she chronicles family life.
In an interview by The Guardian:
“I start every book thinking, ‘This one will be different’ and it’s not,” Tyler says. “I have my limitations. I am fascinated by how families work, endurance, how do we get through life?…We’re endlessly striving and keeping going. How many times we hurt each other in families or drift apart or do harm – and then we come back together and try over again. It’s very heartening and touching.”
It is a perfect summary of what A Spool of Blue Thread is about. Like its predecessors, the book takes place in Baltimore (where Anne Tyler lives) and focuses on a family. We meet the Whitshanks: Junior and Linnie, their son Red and his wife, Abby, and their children…and their children. It also centers on a much beloved house, which becomes a character in its own right, paying witness to four generations until “the filmy-skinned ghosts frolicked and danced on the porch with nobody left to watch.”
At its core, the story centers around Abby, who seems to be “disappearing”. Although never fully stated, we surmise that she is having a series of mini-strokes causing her to become forgetful and lose sections of time and place. Her husband and children, all so distinctively different, rally around what becomes a family tragedy.
Then, to our surprise, once that story has nearly concluded, we are sent back in time to meet and understand the young Junior and Linnie Mae, patriarch and matriarch of the family—who are full of surprises themselves.
Tyler’s insights into human frailties and struggles, strengths, wants, needs, and aspirations is what makes her writing so special. A sentence will stop you mid-read and you shake your head at its truth. The story slowly surrenders its secrets as you realize that Anne Tyler’s characters could be anyone we know and love: family members who may say the wrong thing or take the wrong path and whose lives are often messy. Yet at their core, good people who are just trying to forge their way through.
Interestingly, Tyler does not wrap up all the little loose ends into a tidy ending. But we know these characters so well by this point that the conclusions we draw on our own are probably correct. Or… perhaps not.