"It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon." This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The whole family--their two daughters and two sons, their grandchildren, even their faithful old dog--is on the porch, listening contentedly as Abby tells the tale they have heard so many times before. And yet this gathering is different too: Abby and Red are growing older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them, and the fate of the house so lovingly built by Red's father. Brimming with the luminous insight, humor, and compassion that are Anne Tyler's hallmarks, this capacious novel takes us across three generations of the Whitshanks, their shared stories and long-held secrets, all the unguarded and richly lived moments that combine to define who and what they are as a family.
Tyler is good on irony too....Tyler is sensitive to the tragicomedy of old age and its indignities. Her writing is characterised by an amused, sweeping tolerance that acknowledges imperfection at all ages. ..Tyler writes with witty economy..It takes organised wit to write about human muddle as Tyler does, without once losing our attention or the narrative’s spool of blue thread.
On the back of the book The Boston Globe says of A Spool of Blue Thread says " They are our own families; they are our ourselves; and it is our own desperate desire to understand the people that we love, as well as the people who hurt us and whom we hurt, that keeps us reading with fervor" and I would heartily concur.
A wonderful and insightful read. I have to mention that I think that this is my favourite of Anne Tyler's books that I have read. Anne Tyler is now in her early 70's and I too have grown older, so I think that Anne Tyler has become an even keener, kinder observer of humanness and I too have grown older and can appreciate this book that much more.
4. 5 enthusiastic stars
And it's a perfect book, combining Tyler's keen eye for the ordinary and the idiosyncratic, with a master writing at her peak. This is a quiet book, about a family, about aging and about the history of a family home, but there is nothing bland or boring about it. Like Alice Munro and John Cheever, Tyler has the ability to make a deceptively domestic story resonate.
Abby Whitshank is the central character, appearing first as the mother of four adult children, a wife to a steady husband, dealing with a son who is having trouble gaining traction in life and her own failing memory. It's through her eyes that we watch her family grow. A Spool of Blue Thread is divided into two sections; the first follows the Whitshank family as Red and Abby age and decisions are made about how they are to cope with the family home and their reduced abilities, the second takes the form of a series of short stories, giving the family history back to Red's parents, the history of the house they all love, how Abby and Red began their relationship and the background of their children.
Really, this should be nothing special, a pleasant book to enjoy on a summer's afternoon. But the writing is very fine and places Tyler firmly in with our very best authors.
This time Tyler introduces us to the Whitshank family: Junior and Linnie and, their son Red, his wife Abby and their children, Amanda, Jeannie, Denny, and Stem. We are also introduced to their Baltimore home on Bouton Road. The home was built by patriarch Junior. He bought and moved his family into it when the original owners sold. The novel opens with Red and Abby worrying about their son, Denny, which provides keen insight into all three characters. We are also introduced to their other children.
All families have myths and stories they repeat and tell to subsequent generations. The Whitshanks have some stories of their own that are often told and retold. One story Abby tells is of the day she fell in love with Red. It always begins, "It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon …" What we are privy to, eventually, is some of the truth behind the family myths.
Tyler excels at showcasing the intricacies and complexity of relationships in daily domestic life. The conversations her characters have and conflicts that arise resemble those I have had or heard, in my own family. That members of a family can keep secrets, make assumptions, behave badly, avoid responsibilities, follow traditions, repeat family lore, and live independent lives, all while trying to do their best to care for others or protect them or avoid the truth or deflect responsibility or feel obligated to help, is a fact of life. Families are complicated and relationships messy. Tyler can take these messy complexities of a family and capture it perfectly on paper.
These characters are well developed and totally realized. Through the dialogue and their actions I could readily discern who they are and how they will react to situations. Tyler delivers subtle nuances into all her characters through their dialogue and actions. In the end they are all trying to do their best, even if it doesn't seem apparent or their best isn't what you would expect. As you learn about the Whitshanks, they will become real and you will empathize with them.
I simply can't quite capture how much I love A Spool of Blue Thread. As I have said, it may just be my favorite Anne Tyler novel to date and that in itself is saying a great deal. A Spool of Blue Thread embodies everything that has made Anne Tyler one of my favorite authors. The writing, descriptions, and dialogue are perfect. It's not an extravagant novel, broad in action and breadth. It is an exquisite, finely spun, carefully crafted novel that captures the quirks and nuances of an ordinary family with grace and compassion enough to make them what we all think we are, a special family.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.
Her story moves in mostly reverse generational order so the couple we first meet in middle age is returned to us again as youngsters and the older generation is allowed to return to tell their own versions of their own stories.
A Spool of Blue Thread didn’t always work for me and I often wonder if I am too forgiving or too hard on my favorite authors. I’m still not sure but I do know that I enjoyed this story very much and still think about the characters a week after closing the book. Maybe not my favorite of her books, but a wonderful read nonetheless.
I love surprises like that. :)
Red told his sons that he’d heard somewhere that after a man’s wife dies, he should switch to her side of the bed. Then he’d be less likely to reach out for her in the night by mistake. “I’ve been experimenting with that,” he told them.
“How’s it working?” Denny asked.
“Not so very well, so far. Seems like even when I’m asleep, I keep remembering she’s not there.”
“Last night I dreamed about her,” he said. “She had this shawl wrapped around her shoulders with tassels hanging off it, and her hair was long like old times. She said, ‘Red, I want to learn every step of you, and dance till the end of the night.’ ” He stopped speaking. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. Denny and Stem stood with a screen balanced between them and looked at each other helplessly.
“Then I woke up,” Red said after a minute. He stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket. “I thought, ‘This must mean I miss having her close attention, the way I’ve always been used to.’ Then I woke up again, for real. Have either of you ever done that? Dreamed that you woke up, and then found you’d still been asleep? I woke up for real and I thought, ‘Oh, boy. I see I’ve still got a long way to go with this.’ Seems I haven’t quite gotten over it, you know?”
“Gosh,” Stem said. “That’s hard.”
“Maybe a sleeping pill,” Denny suggested.
“What could that do?” Red asked.
“Well, I’m just saying.”
The story is told throughout the years, with glances back at how the house came to be built, Red's parents relationship, and Abby and Red's life with their own children. There were a few surprises mixed in that I did not see coming; one in particular that made me catch my breath with disbelief.
I found myself enthralled with the Whitshank family, and discovered at the end that I was not done being immersed in this funky family, and would love to know more of their story, both past and future.
As for the house; Junior's coveted house. If those walls could talk, the story they could tell. It seems to me that is the true story of life.
The genuineness of the characters made me care about them immensely. They aren’t revealed with a lot of explicit descriptions, but just as in life I came to know them over time through how they acted and what they said, and the luminous realism of the story extends to its setting. I live near Baltimore, whose streets Tyler obviously knows well, and several recent weather events--the 2012 derecho and Hurricane Sandy--became pivotal points of the plot.
While not sugar-coated or simplistic A Spool of Blue Thread celebrates family connections. The conclusion is satisfying, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, but it doesn’t wrap everything up neatly and sweetly, keeping the Whitshanks alive in my mind and letting me wonder what they’ll do next.
There are some lovely moments throughout. Red and Stem search the house, looking for Abby: “‘Let’s check upstairs.’ ‘I did check upstairs.’ But they headed for the stairs anyway, like people hunting their keys in the same place over ad over because they can’t believe that isn’t where they are.” The way a family thinks of itself, “To varying degrees they tolerated each other’s spouses, but they made no particular effort with the spouses’ families, whom they generally felt to be not quite as close and kindred-spirited as their own family was.” Her details that depict and reveal, “[Abby] sat down next to him. The mattress slanted in her direction; she was a wide, solid woman.” Her wonderful insights into the generations, “Didn’t anyone stop to reflect that the so-called old people of today used to smoke pot, for heaven’s sake, and wear bandannas tied around their heads and picket the White House?” And, “It was possible that in her heart of hearts, she was thinking that the world couldn’t go on without her. Oh, weren’t human beings self-deluding! Because the plain fact was that no one needed her anymore. Her children were grown up, and her clients had vanished into thin air the moment she retired.”
Unfortunately, as a whole, the story is uneven. The first part is fully fleshed out and loaded with insight. The connectedness of family and humanity is vibrant, solid and moving at the same time. The other parts just do not hold together in the same way. Somewhere around page 265, I began to lose interest and never got it back. The character of Lennie Mae was just annoying. Perhaps she was meant to be funny, but I didn’t find her so. I was sorry to lose the attachment I felt to the Whitshanks’ and by the end I was just glad it was over. Sad.
Seriously, this is an excellent novel, probably one of Tyler's best and most subtle, but it does read almost like a pastiche of an Anne Tyler novel at times. She dissects four generations of the Whitshanks, a family of house-builders, who live in a grand house that "Junior" Whitshank, founder of the firm, built for a client and then bought back for himself during World War II. In the foreground timeframe of the story, Red and Abby, the second generation, are starting to get old and their children are worried about them, to the extent that two sons (one single, one with a family) decide to move back in to look after their parents - nothing that Red and Abby can do will pry them loose.
This is an interesting story. The characters grapple with familiar challenges in complex and real ways. Through her characters, Tyler makes observations about relationships and human nature that are fresh and insightful. The book might have been more powerful if the later parts, which flashed back to earlier generations, had helped me to understand the Whitshank family at a deeper level. The stories each worked as separate narratives, but didn't layer as much as I wished they had.
Some of the characters were likable, most were fairly interesting. The writing was solid – not overly flowery but well-crafted. The problem is that I never connected with the family. With few exceptions, not much happened, and even the exceptions were not especially interesting.
I like reading about families, and all the different versions of family dynamics, but this one failed to draw me in, made me feel it was not different from others I've read, just with somewhat different characters.
I'm not giving up on Anne Tyler, but this is probably the least favorite of her works I've read so far.
The story introduces Danny and his wayward feelings toward his family. This part of the story is very believable and sets the tone for the book. After Abby's sudden death, the family comes together to relocate Red and clean out the house. Lots of typical family relationships: love, jealousy, neglect, interest, loyalty, disloyalty. The spool of blue thread acts as a symbol for Abby's relationship with Danny; there are other streams of blue (paint) that appear in the book.
Basically, this is a story of family relationships. The ending shows Danny leaving home, calling a girlfriend who he apparently is trying to resume a relationship, but his experience on the train with a young teenage boy who is crying says more about Danny's heart than anything else. The book is beautifully written and I definitely feel I get to know the characters, it's just that I wanted and expected more.
The story of three generations of the Whitshank family, from Linnie Mae and Junior in the Depression era, to Red and Abby and their four children (together with assorted grand-children) in the present day. Part 1, which is more or less set in the present day and comprises more than half the book, was fantastic and, I felt, complete in itself - I would have given it 5 stars. All the characters are fully actualized, save for the ever mysterious Denny and the enigmatic Nora, who are intentionally opaque. Abby was very easy to sympathize with and very easy to feel frustrated by, depending whose viewpoint was being employed. The story behind Denny's attitude to his mother was gradually and convincingly revealed and the story of Stem was heart-breaking (although I had questions as to how Abby and Red managed to get by without some sort of formal guardianship).
Then the remaining Parts go back further in time and tell how Abby and Red met, which I found less interesting, and finally the story of Linnie Mae and Junior which, frankly, I could have done without. The mystery of why Junior was never satisfied with the flagstones at the front of the house was cleared up, but overall that story leaves a bad taste in the mouth in comparison with the more positive Part 1.
The writing was excellent throughout - I particularly enjoyed the scenes at the holiday cottage - but I would have preferred a more linear narration. The very ending, which I think was intended to express hope for Denny's future, confused me slightly - what were we to make of the boy crying on the train? Was Denny right to ignore him?
Delightful, amusing, poignant and so darn realistic. The novel starts in the present, goes back to the past when the children were younger and then even further back to Red's parents. See there is a house and this house has a special place in all their lives. Built by Red's father for someone else it became his in a questionable way.
Funny how many of the stories told within a family and passed down may often not be the whole truth. This novel reveals some of the inconsistencies in this family's stories. And Linnie May, she sure is some piece of work, funny how appearances are so often deceiving. That is the brilliance of Anne Tyler, she knows all these things about people and more importantly she knows how to write about them, making what many of us can identify in our own lives and families, oh so interesting.
If this is in fact her last novel, I for one will surely miss her wonderful stories.
ARc from publisher.