A Spool of Blue Thread
February 2015 Indie Next List
— Dinah Hughley, Powell's Books, Inc, Portland, OR
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Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize
“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.
Praise For A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel…
“Anne Tyler’s novels are invitations to spend time in the houses of the Baltimore neighborhood that she has built—house by house, block by block, word by word—over her long and bright career.” —Francine Prose, The New York Review of Books
“Tyler has proved again and again that a chronicle of middle-class family life in Baltimore can illuminate the human condition as acutely as any novel of ideas, albeit with a more modest demeanor . . . The Whitshanks [are] rendered with such immediacy and texture that they might be our next-door neighbors.” —Los Angeles Times
“Happily, A Spool of Blue Thread is a throwback to the meaty family dramas with which Tyler won her popularity in the 1980s . . . As in the best of her novels, she here extends her warmest affection to the erring, the inconstant, and the mismatched—the people who are ‘like anybody else,’ in Red’s words.” —Wall Street Journal
“An act of literary enchantment . . . How can it be so wonderful? . . . Tyler remains among the best chroniclers of family life this country has ever produced . . . Some of the most lovely and loving writing Tyler has ever done.” —Washington Post
“It’s been a long time since I read a book I wished would not end, purposely slowing my progress to save a bit for later. A Spool of Blue Thread was that kind of book . . . The Whitshanks are us, in a way, and this makes them endlessly interesting to watch, as well as very touching.” —Newsday
“Well-built, homey and unpretentious . . . Readers of any age should have no trouble relating . . . We can only hope that Tyler will continue spooling out her colorful Baltimore tales for a long time to come.” —NPR.org
“Among her finest . . . There’s no novelist living today who writes more insightfully (and often humorously) than Tyler does about the fictions and frictions of family life.” —Baltimore Sun
“A Spool of Blue Thread deserves to stand among Tyler’s best writing.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Tyler is easily the closest we have to an American Chekhov . . . [Her] books will outlive us all . . . Tyler has rarely been given credit as subversive, because her style is so simple, direct, and sincere. But the stories she tells often detonate their own structure, and resonate long after many more superficially dazzling novels have faded . . . No one has been doing it longer, and by now no one does it better.” —Buffalo News
“In warm, lucid prose, Tyler skips back and forth through the twentieth century to depict the Whitshanks.” —The New Yorker
“Fifty years, and Tyler’s still got it . . . [She] is a master at creating clans; at crafting groups of diverse characters who nonetheless belong together, who seem vulnerable and honest and real . . . I couldn’t put A Spool of Blue Thread down.” —Seattle Times
“The extraordinary thing about all her writing is the extent to which she makes one believe every word, deed, and breath. A Spool of Blue Thread is no exception. [It keeps] one as absorbed as if it were one’s own family she were describing, and as if what happened to them were necessary reading . . . What she has that neither Marilynne Robinson nor Alice Munro possess to the same degree is an irrepressible sense of the comedy beneath even the most melancholy surface . . . Such a joy.” —The Guardian
“Deeply moving . . . A Spool of Blue Thread is a miracle of sorts, a tender, touching and funny story about three generations of an ordinary American family who are, of course, anything but . . . Tyler’s accomplishment in this understated masterpiece is to convince us not only that the Whitshanks are remarkable but also that every family—no matter how seemingly ordinary—is in its own way special.” —Associated Press
“Tyler’s genius as a novelist involves her ability to withhold moral judgment of her characters. Tyler trusts the reader to decide . . . tightly written and highly readable . . . Tyler employs dark humor wonderfully . . . Thoughtful and intriguing.” —Boston Globe
“Absorbing and deeply satisfying.” —Entertainment Weekly
“For half a century, Anne Tyler has been doing something similar [to Émile Zola], building up a cast of characters, turning in to yet another Baltimore lane, forming a composite picture of American life from Roosevelt to Obama . . . Tyler’s comic naturalism uses the family of today as a way of getting inside the ‘ordinary,’ in the sense not of bland but of universal.” —New Statesman
“Have you ever worried that one of your most favorite authors might disappoint you with a new novel? Well, fear not. Anne Tyler delivers all you expect and more in her latest . . . A truly authentic look at modern day American families . . . Piercing.” —Huffington Post
“The master delivers, again. (Like you’re surprised.) . . . Moving and resonant . . . This novel is as clever and compelling as her best work.” —Bustle
“You legion of lovers of Anne Tyler are going to get this new novel of hers and love it, too . . . With this novel, as with her others, it’s easy to underestimate or simply miss the art that looks and feels so much like life—which is, after all the essence of Anne Tyler’s art and, like life, never easy at its best.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Tyler has constructed the character of Abby with all the care to rival some of her best previous characters from her 50 years of writing . . . When you reach the last page of the book, you hope the author has the first draft of another book about the same people already written. There’s a good chance you’ll feel this way about the Whitshank family.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Tyler’s novels have won a legion of fans. And they will not be disappointed by A Spool of Blue Thread . . . As Tyler delves further into her creations’ psyches, she ratchets up to familial drama, and she does so with prose that occasionally soars from the page and stops the reader’s breath . . . A humane and moving novel.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Tyler tenderly unwinds the tangled skeins of three generations, then knits them together . . . in precise often hilarious detail . . . By the end of this deeply beguiling novel, we come to know a reality entirely different form the one at the start. Not that anyone’s lying, only that everything—the way we see the world and the way we understand it to work—is changed by the intimate, incremental shifts of daily life.” —O magazine
“Tyler slyly dismantles the myth-making behind all our family stories . . . She does so with a compassion that recognizes that few of us will be immune to similar accommodations with the truth . . . The novel [makes] piercing forays into the long-distant past . . . We are not reading the fiction of estrangement, or of disorientation, but its power derives from the restless depths beneath its unfractured surface.” —The Guardian
“Exploring this dichotomy—the imperfections that reside within a polished exterior—is Tyler’s specialty, and her latest generation-spanning work accomplishes just that, masterfully and monumentally . . . Indelible.” —Elle
“This book is about love and the tensions that bind us . . . Focused,wholly audacious and damn good." —Gawker
“Tyler show[s] once again that she’s a gifted and engrossing storyteller.” —Publishers Weekly
“Probably the best novel you will read all year . . . A fine, secretly well-crafted, utterly absorbing, and compelling new addition to the Tyler canon . . . Lovely, funny, tragic, and at times almost unbearably poignant.” —Chicago Tribune
“By my count I’ve now reviewed around 50 books for USA Today. I’ve never given any of them four stars until today: to A Spool of Blue Thread, the masterful 20th novel by Anne Tyler . . . A Spool of Blue Thread is a flight forward . . . Akin to the enigmatic Alice Munro, or, if you prefer, a direct influence on Jonathan Franzen.” —USA Today
“Tolstoy isn’t the only novelist to have noticed that happy families are happy in the same way. In our time, Anne Tyler makes this observation with more generosity of spirit and humor than Tolstoy ever showed . . . Here’s an author who, after fifty years of writing, continues at the top of her game. With prose so polished it practically glows on the page, she makes fiction writing seem like an effortless enterprise.” —Houston Chronicle
“A Spool of Blue Thread showcases Tyler’s knack for capturing thoughts and feelings unsparingly and sympathetically . . . The novel is filled with authentic and memorable moments.” —Philadelphia Inquirer
“Sitting down with an Anne Tyler novel is not unlike taking your place at Thanksgiving dinner . . . The story of any family is told through the prism of time. And no storyteller compares to Tyler when it comes to unspooling those tales.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“The sort of novel that’s hard to disentangle yourself from . . . Warm, charming and emotionally radiant, A Spool of Blue Thread surely must be counted as among Tyler’s best . . . Even the closest family has secrets, and Tyler reveals them in a satisfying and moving way . . . That’s more than 50 years of producing luminous, comic, heartbreaking fiction . . . Here’s hoping for more of her wise, wonderful words.” —Miami Herald
“Thematically similar to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in many ways, A Spool of Blue Thread delivers plenty of situational comedy. But it’s also incisive in exploring how families work—and don’t.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“What a wonderful, natural writer she is . . . She knows all the secrets of the human heart.” —Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane
“Anne Tyler is one of my favourite writers and this is a delicious book. It is like being with a dear old friend. It is very special.” —Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
“. . .Tyler is as fleet and graceful as a skater, her prose as transparent as ice . . . We get swept up in the spin of conversations, the slipstream of consciousness, and the glide and dip of domestic life, then feel the sting of Tyler’s quick and cutting insights into unjust assumptions about class, gender, age, and race . . . Tyler’s long dedication to language and story [is] an artistic practice made perfect in this charming, funny, and shrewd novel of the paradoxes of self, family, and home.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)
“Tyler gives us lovely insights into an ordinary family who, ‘like most families . . . imagined they were special.’ They will be special to readers thanks to the extraordinary richness and delicacy with which Tyler limns complex interactions and mixed feelings familiar to us all and yet marvelously particular to the empathetically rendered members of the Whitshank clan. The texture of everyday experience transmuted into art . . . Family life in Baltimore [is] still a fresh and compelling subject in the hands of this gifted veteran.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
Reviews from the UK:
“[Tyler's] extraordinary gift for producing what seems less like fiction than actuality works wonders again. Characters all but elbow their way off the page with lifelikeness . . . Masterly . . . Magnificent . . . A gleamingly accomplished book.” —Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times
“A glorious treat for her loyal and attentive readers . . . As accomplished as her Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, it is the best novel Tyler has published in decades . . . It is a masterclass of restrained writing, lightened with gentle comedy and pitch-perfect dialogue . . . The complex narrative has more layers than Merrick Whitshank’s wedding cake.” —The Independent
“She has given us plenty of reminders of her lavish strengths: the quiet authority of her prose; the ultimately persuasive belief that a kindly eye is not necessarily a dishonest one; and perhaps above all, the fact that, 50 years after she started, she still gives us a better sense than almost anyone else of what it’s like to be alive.” —The Sunday Telegraph
“A Spool of Blue Thread may be her best yet . . . Anne Tyler leaves me thrilled and baffled by her genius . . . How does she do it? . . . Her books are somehow more gripping than the paciest transcontinental thriller . . . I know of no other novelist who draws so directly from real life, and whose work remains so uncontaminated by the shortcuts and clichés of television and Hollywood.” —Mail on Sunday
“I’ve been reading Anne Tyler novels for more than 20 years and she has never let me down . . . Tyler has the remarkable gift of laying bare the ordinariness of family life and thereby turning it into something extraordinary. Scratch beneath the surface and most families are dysfunctional and this is what Tyler evokes time and time again with mesmerizing power . . . Read this and you won’t be disappointed . . . Engrossing.” —Vanessa Berridge, Express
“It is wonderful to pick up a novel from a bonafide literary superstar. A Spool of Blue Thread is Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel and it shows in every flawless sentence . . . A stunning novel about family life which just rings so true—it depicts the bonds and the tensions, the love and the exasperation beautifully . . . A terrific novel.” —The Bookseller, UK (Book of the Month)
Knopf, 9781101874271, 368pp.
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
What are the main themes of the novel? Which did you find most thought-provoking?
The novel opens and closes with Denny. Do you think he’s the main character? If not, who is?
We don’t learn the full significance of the title until nearly (on page 350). How did this delay make the metaphor more powerful? What is the metaphor?
On page 10, Tyler writes, “Well, of course they did hear from him again. The Whitshanks weren’t a melodramatic family.” What type of family are they? Compare the way you see them with the way they see themselves.
Chapter 2 begins with the Whitshank family stories: “These stories were viewed as quintessential—as defining, in some way—and every family member, including Stem’s three-year-old, had heard them told and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times.” (page 40) Why are these two stories so important? Why is the story of Red’s sister important to Red’s family?
“Patience, in fact, was what the Whitshanks imagined to be the theme of their two stories—patiently lying in wait for what they believed should come to them.” (page 57) Others might say it was envy or disappointment. Which interpretation makes the most sense to you? Can you think of another linking theme?
How does Abby’s story about the day she fell in love with Red fit into the Whitshank family history? Why isn’t it one of the family’s two defining stories?
Much is made of Abby’s “orphans,” which we learn also include Stem. What does her welcoming of strangers into her home say about her character? How do the others’ responses set up a subtle contrast?
Discuss the character Denny. Why is he so resentful of Stem? Why is he so secretive about his life?
Do Red and Abby have favorite children and grandchildren? Who do you think each one favors?
On page 151, Tyler writes about Abby: “She had always assumed that when she was old, she would have total confidence, finally. But look at her: still uncertain.” Do you think Abby’s family sees her as uncertain or lacking in confidence? Why?
Abby dies suddenly in an accident, just like Red’s parents did. When it came to his parents, “Red was of the opinion that instantaneous death was a mercy .?.?.” (page 153) Do you think he felt the same way after Abby’s death?
Why didn’t Abby tell Red about Stem’s mother? Why didn’t Denny tell Stem? And why, after they learn the truth, does Stem make Red and Denny promise not to tell anyone else?
At Abby’s funeral, Reverend Alban speculates that heaven may be “a vast consciousness that the dead return to,” bringing their memories with them. (page 189) What do you think of his theory? What do you imagine Abby would say about it?
Why did Red’s pausing to count the rings on the felled poplar make Abby fall in love with him?
The novel isn’t structured chronologically. How does Tyler use shifts in time to reveal character and change the reader’s perception?
What is the significance of the porch swing? What does it tell us about Linnie Mae and Junior?
After reading their story, how did your opinion of Linnie Mae change?
The Whitshank house, built by Junior and maintained by Red, is practically a character in the novel. What does it mean to the Whitshank family? Why, in the end, does it seem easy for Red to leave?
On the train at the end of the novel, Denny sits next to a teenage boy who cries quietly. What is the significance of this scene?