A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler. Originally published in 2015. 368 pages.
I suspect this is the first piece of fiction I’ve ever read that was written in within 20 years of the time I actually read it. I don’t like post-modern fiction, for the most part. I stumbled on this one completely by accident as we were in the book section of a local Target looking for a good book that our oldest daughter could read on an upcoming cross-country plane trip.
The cover caught my attention at first. When I read the synopsis on the inside cover and saw that this was a story about family, family relationships, and the way family members see themselves fitting within those relationships, I was intrigued just enough to put it back on the shelf, go to the library, and check out a copy. Nope, not enough to pay for it.
Red and Abby Whitshank are the head of a close knit family comprised of four grown children and 7 grandchildren.Their roots don’t go back any farther than Abby’s deceased parents, Red’s deceased parents, and Red’s younger sister. In their words, they are all they’ve got.
The gist is that behind the facade of perfection that outsiders see when they look at the Whitshank family, they are just a bunch of ordinary people with ordinary struggles and skeletons in their closet just like every other family. Abby’s realization of this truth, that her family isn’t particularly special, is a hard pill to swallow frankly. And she dies before it is fully digested.
I can relate to that feeling, that your family is special, and because of that I was able to become engrossed in a way I might not have otherwise. Despite Anne Tyler’s acclaim (she wrote The Accidental Tourist* and won the Pulitzer in 1988 for her novel Breathing Lessons*), this book sometimes felt as if it could have been better executed.
The uncertain flow wasn’t enough, however to dampen my interest in the story and I was able to follow it through to the end. The characters were engaging, and I rather enjoyed the fact that the family home functioned as a type of character itself.
One of my favorite moments in the book was when Abby, the family matriarch, died and her husband Red contemplated where she ended up after departing this life. The Whitshanks were not particularly religious people. Despite the fact that Abby’s death was accidental and sudden, her pre-writen instructions for her home going had specified both the church and the minister she wanted to officiate. She also asked that the thing not be too overtly religious, and the minister so obliged. Afterward, it seemed to Red that something was missing. As he recalled the eulogy that had been offered for his late wife, he asked their daughter:
“Where did he say she went?”
“To a vast consciousness,” Amanda told him.
“Well that does sound like something your mother might do,” he said. “But I don’t know. I was hoping for someplace more concrete.”
Red was a master carpenter and home builder so the line did double duty in the book, while also giving me a hint of expression for what I thought about this book. There were characters who were not quite concrete.
The beautiful, extremely devout daughter-in-law who said little, but left you wondering hoe she ended up married into an irreligious family..Red’s sister, who typified much of the spirit of discontent that was part of the Whitshank family legacy, was another.
All that said, A Spool of Blue Thread was a story told well enough to keep the reader plugged in until the end. Especially if you enjoy family dramas with their mix of the mundane, the profound and the emotional ups and downs that all families experience. The stuff that makes life interesting.
Content advisory: I don’t think an advisory is warranted because Tyler is very tasteful in her presentation, but the first generation of Whitshanks that we meet in the book are Red’s 26 year-old father who had a scandalous relationship with his mother when she was 13. I hate trigger warnings, but you know it is these days.
* This is the first novel I have read of Anne Tyler’s. I might in the future be inclined to read one of her two acclaimed works.