A Spool of Blue Thread

by Anne Tyler

Hardcover, 2015

Call number




Knopf (2015), Edition: 1St Edition, 368 pages


"From the beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning author--now in the fiftieth year of her remarkable career--a brilliantly observed, joyful and wrenching, funny and true new novel that reveals, as only she can, the very nature of a family's life. "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"--… (more)

Media reviews

Readers anticipating an easy “domestic” novel will be terrifically surprised...Tyler’s genius as a novelist involves her ability to withhold moral judgment of her characters.....Tyler is in full command of her scenes and her characters, grounding her reader in time and space in every sequence
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of this tightly written and highly readable novel. .....Breaking with a conventional linear structure, the final and most compelling chapters belong to Abby and relay the series of events that led to her falling in love with Red, a story that exists only in Abby’s memory, told here to the reader. The discoveries in these final pages are likely to force readers to reflect back on the earlier chapters and view them in an entirely new — and much darker — light. Here we see the truth about every love story: It was merely an accident of chance.
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4 more
Readers of any age should have no trouble relating to Abby's complaint that "the trouble with dying ... is that you don't get to see how everything turns out. You won't know the ending." Her daughter protests, "But, Mom, there is no ending." To which Abby replies, "Well, I know that." And then
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Tyler adds the unspoken kicker her fans have come to look for: "In theory." We can only hope that Tyler will continue spooling out her colorful Baltimore tales for a long time to come.
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Now 73, Tyler has hinted that this might be her last novel. If so, she may not have ended with a masterpiece, but 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;
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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 part of a family – which for most of us also means a better sense than almost anyone else of what it’s like to be alive. And if all that’s not enough to earn a top-table place, then maybe it’s time to rethink the criteria for qualification.
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Indeed, very little happens in her books. Characters get caught up in repetitive, dead-end conversations which merely fill the gaps, and where silence, existentialist terror and a fear of death continually lingers. But in this passing of time — where seasons change, flowers wither, then bloom
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again, people marry, babies are born and the elderly die slowly with dignity — Tyler then weighs in with her own subtle commentary as a narrator who exudes tremendous skill and precision. It is in these details that she attempts to convey truth, meaning and esthetic beauty. And Tyler’s narrative is a brilliant testament to why the novel still provides an enormously important role in our culture, allowing us to capture the little bits of humanity that somehow seem to bypass us in the real world. ...A Spool of Blue Thread primarily focuses on domestic dreams and disputes, daily ceremonial acts and relationships. Love, loss, and death are about the only certainties the author can guarantee. Family is all we have, Tyler’s prose seems to suggest.
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Tyler is in the top rank of American writers, and moments in this novel have an affinity with Canada’s Alice Munro too. But what she has that neither Robinson nor Munro possess to the same degree is an irrepressible sense of the comedy beneath even the most melancholy surface – or sometimes
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peeking just above it – in human affairs.

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.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member vancouverdeb
A Spool of Blue Thread is in large part a story about two aging parents, Abby and Red Whitshank. Their four grown children become concerned for their welfare and gather together to help out the parents. Denny is their " prodigal son" , who has never really made good in life and he comes rushing
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home. Stem , the easy going, successful son also steps in to help . There are two daughters', Amanda and Jeannie. Though the story is about the aging parents, in fact they are only in their early 70's and Abby, the mother, is just having the odd wandering spell. Whilst the story is about the aging parents, it is so much more about family dynamics, between parents and children, between husband and wife, between adult siblings and even grandparents and grandchildren and their relationships. This story is really about keenly observed relationships, the eccentrics that every family has, the unspoken secrets , jealousy and favoritism. It's about coming from the wrong side of the tracks, about social climbing or one's lack thereof. I found it to be a wonderful , page turner of a book. Though my family is not particularly like the Whitshank family, I could certainly identify with the family and I suspect most of us could do so.

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
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
I started reading Anne Tyler years ago, with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. She was a big deal at the time and I loved her novels about introverted oddballs and their take on living ordinary lives. But over time, I slowly stopped reading Tyler, beginning again with A
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Spool of Blue Thread because I ran across it in a bookstore just after it had been put on Baileys Women's Prize shortlist.

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.
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LibraryThing member Copperskye
The Whitshank’s are a typical Anne Tyler family. They have their quirks, their individual charms, their often universal failings, their misunderstandings, their affection. They have their oft told family stories. And they have their secrets. Oh boy, do they have secrets. They live, of course, in
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Baltimore, in a large rambling house that is in itself another character. Tyler has a knack for fully fleshing out her characters and making them real as they navigate marriage, love, family dynamics and the fates themselves.

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.
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LibraryThing member SheTreadsSoftly
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is very highly recommended, complex, multi-generational novel that is incredible. Really, this could be my favorite Anne Tyler to date, and I love several of her previous books.

This time Tyler introduces us to the Whitshank family: Junior and Linnie and, their
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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.
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LibraryThing member Maydacat
This character-driven novel is one of family relationships and the myriad of problems that seem to plague them almost constantly. Vacillating from past to present, we learn how Abby met Red and married, about the generation before them and about their now-grown kids. If you are looking for a plot
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that actually tells a story, you may be disappointed. There is not much here. If you are seeking a tale about the nature of people to adjust to others, about feelings both justified and not, about speaking truths and hiding truths, and about setting goals and striving for them, then you may find this story interesting. Somehow, I kept wanting more and not getting it. I found the end, or should I say the non-end, to be disappointing.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
Anne Tyler tells the stories of real people, real families, real life. In this book, we meet the Whitshanks. Abby and Red have raised four children in their family home in Baltimore. As they grow older, their children deal with old family issues and changing roles. The second half of the book
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flashes back to Abby and Red's younger days, as well as to their parents' early relationship.

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.
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LibraryThing member scenik1
Once again, Anne Tyler reveals her ability to express the human heart and connect us to our own humanity in big ways and small. A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD is the story of the Whitshank family, depicted in three stories focusing on the different generations. In each one, the underlying foundation is the
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connectedness of family, whether accepted or rejected. Whether it’s shining a light on eldest son Denny and his alienation from the family or on adopted son Stem who is everything the family needs, family is our foundation whether we want to embrace it or not.

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.
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LibraryThing member Dmtcer
The Whitshanks are a typical Anne Tyler family; functionally dysfunctional. The story is centered on that of Red and Abby, the third family to live in the house that Junior built for a rich patron, only to buy it out a few years later. The story opens with a phone call from Denny, the long-lost
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prodigal son announcing he is gay (he's not) and shows the family dynamic. Red is calm, placid, a hard worker. Abby is a helicopter sort of mom, even though her children are grown and gone from the nest.

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.
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
The Whitshank family's story is told in this novel by Tyler. It's not a remarkable tale. I found myself struggling to continue reading it because it never really grabbed me. A few humorous moments did present themselves, but they were few and far between. Much of the plot deals with family
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dynamics. This book will not stick with me. If it had been the first Anne Tyler novel I read, I probably would not bother to read any others by her. I know, however, that the author is capable of a much more remarkable work and will probably read something else in the future.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This is the first book I listened to as an audiobook. This novel certainly presents an engaging story about a family across three generations in Baltimore. While the family is certainly interesting, in many ways I felt as through I was hearing about the typically American family, with problems
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almost everyone could relate to - the troubled son, the aging parents, the pursuit of happiness that sometimes leaves one unhappy. I was glad for the note of hope the novel ended on, but I'm not certain I could enthusiastically recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
While I have enjoyed Ms. Tyler's books in the past, this one just fell somewhat flat for me. It is about relationships, family, doing the right and the wrong thing, making decisions no one wants to make. Everyone in the family has their own issues and their own quirks, but there is one black sheep
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that the rest of the family need, or feel they need, to carry, someone who will always let them down.

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.
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LibraryThing member FAR2MANYBOOKS
Anne Tyler does not “DO” action-packed drama. But if you find the subtle drama of human relationships intriguing, you will enjoy this book.

Incredible prose!
My favorite:

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
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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.”
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LibraryThing member Jaylia3
A Spool of Blue Thread doesn’t have a traditional plot arc or straight through storyline, but after twenty novels Anne Tyler knows exactly what she’s doing and I was completely hooked. Set in Baltimore the novel follows four generations of the Whitshank family, originally from an impoverished
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county in the rural south they’ve been working their way up the social class ladder, but their story feels intimate rather than broad or sweeping. The Whitshanks are a close, ordinary family--mostly loving, sometimes fractious--and their idiosyncrasies, distinct personalities, long held secrets, and personal dramas unfold as the plot moves back and forth in time.

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.
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LibraryThing member alexrichman
I thought this was a bit of a lightweight fluff, but the last few chapters added some much-needed emotional heft. I'm not sure the family will stick in my memory for as long as Franzen's miserable marriages, but I enjoyed whizzing my way to the end.
LibraryThing member nikkinmichaels
There's an immense swell and depth to this story, and the characters are eminently relatable — but ultimately, I found A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD a bit too languid and ordinary.
LibraryThing member dogearedpage
I have to say that I have always enjoyed Anne Tylers books. They always were a slow reveal and at the end you were grateful for having read them. This one though...a better title would have been a bunch of loose threads. It just doesn't come together and there are so many rabbit holes that just
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left you feeling what? what happened? Anne Tyler fans-read it. New to Anne Tyler? don't judge her by this one.
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LibraryThing member thorold
Anne Tyler writes clever, witty, and complicated novels about the matriarchs of extended families in Baltimore. This is a clever, witty, and complicated novel about the matriarch of an extended family in Baltimore. Highly recommended, unless you've read an Anne Tyler novel in the last six months,
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in which case it might be worth holding off for a little while.

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.
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LibraryThing member booklove2
This isn't particularly a book I might have reached for, if it wasn't included in the 2016 Tournament of Books ( themorningnews.org/tob ) and I didn't find a cheap copy. This is a case of I'm not sure what a book is aiming to do, therefore it might not be as successful as it could be. This is
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largely a multi-generational family portrait, with pieces of the puzzle slowly revealed, but I feel like a lot of the pieces were missing. One example: early on in the book, a successful lawyer in her 30s or 40s says to her brother many years younger than her that she can forgive her brother Denny for everything except for taking much of her parents attention away from her and the other two siblings. This was surprising to me, as all of the children seemed well adjusted enough. Denny was a moody kid but when he hit nineteen, he would disappear from his family for years without even a phone call. So other than worry, I'm not sure how much attention he was taking from his parents. On the other hand, in most cases, I think it would take some support from your parents to become a lawyer. I was thinking that throughout the book, more would be revealed as to why the sister thought this way, or some further indiscretion from Denny (or even reasons for his moodiness), but not much else was revealed. Otherwise, this is a history of a family, mysterious grandparents Junior and Linnie Mae in the Great Depression, Junior's son Red and his wife Abby living in the house Junior built, and all of their children. The book was alright to me, but this was such a cast of characters that I feel like it was impossible to find all of those puzzle pieces.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
I love Anne Tyler and her latest novel, is simply wonderful. A story of three generations of a Baltimore family an the house they live in, this book is warm generous and poignant.
LibraryThing member dalzan
he Whitshanks are a family who believe certain myths about themselves. They believe they are happier than other families, and closer to each other, and they believe that Whitshanks have a way of getting what they want. The novel moves back and forth in time in order to explain how certain elements
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of the Whitshank mythology came together. the poignant story of four generations of the Whitshank family living in Baltimore. They are an ordinary family like any other, but they are also special in their own quirky ways. The members of the family love and care for each other, but they also harbor jealousies, rivalries, and carry secrets.
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LibraryThing member librarygeek33
The Chicago Tribune review was spot on ; "Probably the best novel you will read all year." An 'I want to read every book Anne Tyler has ever written' kind of book! A book about nothing and everything. A marvel. Read it!
LibraryThing member kremsa
I won this audio book on the Goodreads Giveaway back in January but only recently received it. What a pleasure to listen to a book written by one of my favorite authors! A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of three generations of a family and the house they live in. Her observations and insights
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capture life in a way that feels familiar yet fresh. Quirky characteristics and small details are noted and exquisitely described, painting vivid pictures in your mind. The plot is not very dramatic but yet it is hard to put the book down. I love her writing style and look forward to reading more of her work.
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LibraryThing member hoosgracie
Read this for my book club. This was an extremely difficult read for me. The storyline put me out of sorts. In general, I found this a rather disjointed book.
LibraryThing member ccayne
Another great family saga from Tyler. She has yet to disappoint me.
LibraryThing member Lori_Eshleman
Review of A Spool of Blue Thread: A Novel. This novel by Pulitzer-Prize winning American writer Anne Tyler is about a family and about a house: the house in Baltimore where several generations of the Whitshank family have lived. As a University instructor who teaches a seminar on Understanding
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Place, I have read many student papers on family homes. The houses we grow up in, the houses where we visit grandparents, and where we raise our own families have a profound effect on our memories, our sense of identity and belonging. Picture Grandma and you will imagine her in her kitchen baking or in her living room playing the piano or in her yard gardening. In her novel, Tyler has tapped into this near universal sense of connectedness to the place that is home. Against this backdrop she shows us the frustrations, disappointments and joys that are so common to family life. In contrast to the forward progression of many novels, she leads us from the present back to earlier generations of the same family, so that we see the story unfold through time, complete with changes to the house: from its construction, when it is up-to-date and modern, to its weathering and aging, just as generations weather and age. We get to know Abby, the aging hippy mother who senses that she has never really grown up; Denny, her son, whose feelings of resentment stunt his life; Red, her husband, whose father built the house; Linnie Mae, her mother-in-law, who makes a life for herself with the man she loves, against all odds. This is an ordinary middle class family, tugged at by rivalry and misunderstanding; and by the sense of falling short, of never quite fitting in. The house is what it is to many middle class families: a symbol of having arrived, of success and material comfort. And also a symbol of the passage of time. Houses are built, houses age and pass on; as people, too, age and die--and families move on to the next generation. I was struck by what one of Abby’s daughters says at the end of Part 1, looking at the chaos of moving day: “It makes you wonder why we bother accumulating, accumulating, when we know from earliest childhood how it’s all going to end”(217). Despite this downward tug of dissolution, the novel offers us a kind of answer to “why we bother,” in small and poignant moments of revelation, connection, and forgiveness.
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