A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread Anne TylerShortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler tells the story of three generations of the Whitshank family during the twentieth century. The novel focuses on Red and Abby Whitshank and their four grown up children: the black sheep of the family Denny, daughters Jeannie and Amanda and adopted son Stem. Meanwhile, the story of how Red’s parents Junior and Linnie Mae met and married in the 1930s forms another significant thread of the family saga.

I enjoyed reading Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘Breathing Lessons’ a few years ago but hadn’t read any of her other books until now despite her career spanning twenty novels across six decades. She is famous for writing predominantly about the intricacies of family relationships and most of her novels are set in Baltimore, Maryland. Some have criticised Tyler for remaining too firmly in her comfort zone but I don’t have an issue with authors sticking to what they know, especially when the writing is as accomplished as Tyler’s is here.

As a domestic drama about a suburban white middle-class family, ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ was never going to be considered as groundbreaking as other books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, notably A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and the winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. However, whether describing significant life-changing events or the mundane routines in Red and Abby’s marriage, Tyler has the ability to write so much detail into her characters seemingly effortlessly and without sentimentality– a skill which shouldn’t be underestimated. She unpicks the minute details of various characters quietly and slowly, and is particularly astute where Red and Abby’s relationship with Denny is concerned.

Tyler writes that “There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence, and in looks they were no more than average… But like most families, they imagined they were special.” Ironically, it is the way Tyler describes the Whitshanks’ ordinariness which makes them so fascinating. Although I found Junior and Linnie Mae’s story less engaging than the parts about Red and Abby set in the present day, Tyler presents an effective portrait of family life across the generations with well-pitched elements of humour and tragedy woven into it.

Tyler has hinted in the past that ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ would be her final novel although her modern retelling of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ for the Hogarth Shakespeare project ‘Vinegar Girl’ will be published later this year. Even though it is unlikely that I will read all of Tyler’s work, I have a copy of ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’ which is widely considered to be her best novel and I am sure I will read this in the not too distant future.

Many thanks to Random House UK Vintage Publishing for sending me a review copy of ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ via NetGalley.

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27 Comments

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27 responses to “A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

  1. am literally just about to start reading this!!

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  2. Jeremy

    Sounds like something I could enjoy. Definitely more than A History of Seven Killings. Although I want to try Marlon James’s novel, I’m pretty sure that I will have more trouble enjoying that story than I will have with Anne Tyler’s novel.

    So much to read, so little time.

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  3. I’ve read quite a few of Tyler’s books and I must admit, the novelty has worn off for me. I would have been tempted by this because it was shortlisted for the Booker, had it not been for the fact that all the reviews said it was ‘classic Tyler’.

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  4. Sarah

    I’ve not long finished this and loved it. Anne Tyler seems to capture the domestic sphere so accurately with a warmth and humour, and her prose is such a joy to read. I’ve collected a stack of her novels secondhand that I’m working my way through and every one is a gem. 🙂

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  5. A Spool of Blue Thread and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant are the only two Tyler novels I’ve read. I love her writing style and the way she draws the reader into whatever family/home she is describing. That said, I much preferred Dinner; the story built to a natural climax whereas Spool of Blue Thread meandered into its close. Both are so beautifully written that I can’t wait to pick up Breathing Lessons!

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  6. I think it’s pretty safe for a newbie like me to give this book a read. It sure sounds fascinating! That passage you included in your review instantly grabbed my attention.

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  7. I like the way that Tyler uses a small canvas to look at universal issues. Not all of her novels have hit the spot for me but this one worked well. When I reviewed it someone mentioned that they’d heard that she enjoyed settling down with her friends to watch that other Baltimore-set drama, The Wire, which is an image I still treasure!

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  8. I finished this one not too long ago and really loved it!

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  9. I read A Spool of Blue Thread” and was underwhelmed – I think I came to it with exaggerated expectations, after all the hype.

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  10. I’ve only ever read one of hers, Saint Maybe, I think. I did enjoy it, so I must also try another one or two. Thanks.

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  11. Interesting reveiw and discussion here in the comments. I’ve read Digging to America and enjoyed that. But then I was disappointed by The Beginner’s Goodbye and consequently have been hesitant about trying A Spool of Blue Thread. Maybe I’ll give it a go now.

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  12. I have been saving this review until I finally read the novel. I have read ALL of her other 19!! and I have to say that for me this was a return to form after a couple of lacklustre ones. Yes, if you don’t like small canvases of intricate family detail that feels almost like reportage, you won’t like to read a lot of her, but there are some really wonderful reads in her oeuvre – I particularly like Morgan’s Passing and Ladder of Years.

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