A Spool of Blue Thread

By Anne Tyler

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

Although Anne Tyler was born in, Minnesota in 1941, grew up in North Carolina and earned a degree at Duke University, she has made Baltimore her literary and literal home, setting many novels there. In 50 years of writing, she has produced 20 novels, many of them best-sellers, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her 11th, “Breathing Lessons.”  Among her other successful books are “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and “The Accidental Tourist,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, was No. 1 on The New York Times Bestseller list and was made into an Oscar-winning film with Geena Davis and William Hurt.

What is this book about?

It’s about a home as much as it is about a family. Most of this multi-generational story of the Whitshanks takes place in the meticulously constructed home on Bouton Road in Baltimore, built by the aspiring Junior Whitshank in 1936 and later handed down to his blunt but caring son, Red, who runs a construction business, and his wife Abby, a social worker who seems to regard her kids as clients and adores them with a fierce devotion that skirts the boundaries between motherlove and smothering love. The kids, actually all adults, are capricious, mysterious and frustrating Denny, who drops in and out of family life, deeply annoying his siblings; lawyerly Amanda and quiet Jeannie, and sweet-natured Stem, an adopted child whose presence irks jealous Denny and who is married to the preternaturally respectful and caring Nora, a religious fundamentalist who calls Abby “Mother Whitshank,” much to her mother-in-law’s chagrin. There’s also Red’s social-climbing sister Merrick, and a passel of grandkids. What happens? Nothing earthshaking, but nevertheless highly relatable events: marital squabbles and reconciliations, coping with a blacksheep son, the poignancy and perils of aging, the fraying and re-knitting of family ties.

Why you’ll like it:

Tyler’s novels are known for their quirky characters, and Tyler herself is an oddity among successful self-marketing writers today: she won’t do in-person interviews, read from her work in public or participate in book signings or tours to promote her novels. And sadly for her many readers, Tyler, who is 73, has said this book is likely to be her last. What keeps those readers in her corner? It’s her innate understanding of the ups and downs of typical marriages and the often-thwarted but spectacularly indulged urge to kick over the traces of a dutiful life and embrace rebellion, the ability to write lyrically without being grandiose and to create comic novels from everyday life and often, sad circumstances. If this is indeed Tyler’s final novel, it’s a good one to cap a career with, and for readers who are charmed by her novels of Charm City, it opens a door to her previous 19 books.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says:  “…graceful and capacious…Give or take a few details, this extended/blended/fouled-up family could be any of ours. That makes it cliché territory, risky for an ambitious novelist. It’s also quintessential Anne Tyler, as well as quintessential American comedy. Tyler has a knack for turning sitcom situations into something far deeper and more moving. Her great gift is playing against the American dream, the dark side of which is the falsehood at its heart: that given hard work and good intentions, any family can attain the Norman Rockwell ideal of happiness—ordinary, homegrown happiness…In novel after novel [Tyler] predisposes her characters to crave the unattainable—parental love (in both directions), a sense of belonging (among your own and in the world), forgiveness, amnesty from familial wrongdoing, the comfort of home. And yet she’s a comic novelist, and a wise one. The calamities she depicts are minor, after all, and her characters aren’t the twisted, fearsome ones of much American fiction.”

Publishers Weekly says; “Thoroughly enjoyable but incohesive, Tyler’s latest chronicles the Whitshank family through several generations in Baltimore, Md. The narrative initially tackles the mounting tensions among the grown Whitshank siblings as their aging parents, Red and Abby, need looking after. The youngest son, Stem, adopted as a toddler, moves back into the family house to help care for Abby, who has spells of forgetfulness. This causes resentment in Denny, the family’s eldest biological son, who is capricious and has been known to drift in and out of their lives. As matters come to a head in Abby’s life and the lives of her children, the story suddenly switches to an in-depth exploration of Red’s parents and Red and Abby’s courtship, delving into Whitshank family lore. The interlude proves jarring for the reader, who at this point has invested plenty of interest in the siblings. Despite this, Tyler does tie these sections together, showing once again that she’s a gifted and engrossing storyteller.” 

“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,” says the Wall Street Journal.


“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,” says the Associated Press.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Three generations of Whitshanks have lived in the family home in Baltimore since the 1920s, in which they have loved, squabbled, protected secrets, had children, and, in some cases, led inauthentic lives. Using her signature gifts for brilliant dialog and for intricately framing the complex messiness of parental and spousal relationships, Tyler beautifully untangles the threads that bind and sometimes choke all of them, especially Red and Abby, the last Whitshank homestead occupants. In 2012, Red and Abby are in their late 70s, and their fractious children rally to the modern dilemma of the sandwich generation—caring for aging resistant parents in their home safely, while raising their own children. VERDICT It’s been half a century since Tyler debuted with If Morning Ever Comes, and her writing has lost none of the freshness and timelessness that has earned her countless awards and accolades. Now 73, she continues to dazzle with this multigenerational saga, which glides back and forth in time with humor and heart and a pragmatic wisdom that comforts and instructs.”

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “Tyler’s 20th again centers on family life in Baltimore, still a fresh and compelling subject in the hands of this gifted veteran. She opens in 1994, with Red and Abby Whitshank angsting over a phone call from their 19-year-old son, Denny. In a few sharp pages we get the family dynamic: Red can be critical, Abby can be smothering, and Denny reacts to any criticism by dropping out of sight. But as Part 1 unfolds, primarily from 2012 on, we see Denny has a history of wandering in and out of the Whitshank home on Bouton Road just often enough to keep his family guessing about the jobs and relationships he acquires and discards (” ‘Boring’ seemed to be his favorite word”) while resenting his siblings’ assumption that he can’t be relied on. This becomes an increasingly fraught issue after Red has a heart attack and Abby begins to have “mind skips”; Tyler sensitively depicts the conflicts about how to deal with their aging parents among take-charge Amanda, underappreciated Jeannie and low-key Stem, whose unfailing good nature and designation as heir to Whitshank Construction infuriate Denny. A sudden death sends Tyler back in time to explore the truth behind several oft-recounted Whitshank stories, including the day Abby fell in love with Red and the origins of Junior, the patriarch who built the Bouton Road home in 1936. We see a pattern of scheming to appropriate things that belong to others and of slowly recognizing unglamorous, trying true love—but that’s only a schematic approximation of the lovely insights Tyler gives us 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.”

When is it available?

You can unwind this tale of family life at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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