A Spool of Blue Thread

Spool of Blue ThreadAnne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, the seventh book I’ve read for the WoMan Booker Shadow Panel, got off to an inauspicious start when I took an instantaneous dislike to the snobby Whitshank family at its heart. It’s not that I don’t enjoy books about unlikable people, but I dislike it when an author seems to be unaware that her creations are entirely insufferable–and the Whitshanks, especially matriarch Abby Whitshank, are. Anyone who isn’t “their sort” is held up for scorn or, perhaps worse, their pity. Their efforts to be nice seem like a show, and appearances are given a high priority.

Thank goodness for the second chapter, where Tyler steps in and teaches her readers how to understand this book and this family:

But like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills. Calling in a repairman—even one of their own employees—was looked upon as a sign of defeat. All of them had inherited Junior’s allergy to ostentation, and all of them were convinced that they had better taste than the rest of the world. At times they made a little too much of the family quirks—of both Amanda and Jeannie marrying men named Hugh, for instance, so that their husbands were referred to as “Amanda’s Hugh” and “Jeannie’s Hugh”; or their genetic predisposition for lying awake two hours in the middle of every night; or their uncanny ability to keep their dogs alive for eons. With the exception of Amanda they paid far too little attention to what clothes they put on in the morning, and yet they fiercely disapproved of any adult they saw wearing blue jeans.

As it turns out, the project of this book is to poke holes in the family’s own view of itself—to reveal a history that is not what most would expect and to show that the future is less certain that anyone would imagine. It is, at times, a quirky book, and the Whitshanks never become entirely likable, but as we get to dig past those appearances, they become more interesting and easier to sympathize with.

The book’s present-day storyline deals with the Red and Abby Whitshank and their relationship with their adult children, three of whom reside near them in Baltimore and one of whom is more of a free spirit, losing touch with the family for months and months as he wanders the country trying out one life after another. The book also travels back in time, to Red and Abby’s youth and to the early years of Red’s parents’ marriage. Some of the stories revealed in these flashbacks are ones the family loves to tell, but others are buried in the minds of those who’ve died, leaving behind a legend instead of the more complicated and compelling truth.

This is only the second book I’ve ever read by Anne Tyler. My first attempt at reading her was close to 20 years ago, when I read and didn’t much like Breathing Lessons. I’ve come to suspect that her books are less easily appreciated by the young, so I’d been thinking I might revisit her, and I did like this better than I remember liking Breathing Lessons. It’s a book that goes down easily and is more subtle than it appears at first glance. I’d not put Tyler on my must-read author list on the strength of this book, but I’d certainly consider reading her again.

As far as the Booker goes, this book lands with the other middlers—The Moor’s Account and The Illuminations. It’s a book I enjoyed and am glad to have read, but I wouldn’t consider it worthy of a major prize. However, of the three, it’s the one I’d favor most for the prize, mostly because I appreciated the gradual tearing down of the family mythology. It was aiming for something more sophisticated than The Moor’s Account and was more successful in achieving its aim than The Illuminations.

Other Shadow Panelist Reviews: Of Books and Bikes, Dolce Bellezza

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25 Responses to A Spool of Blue Thread

  1. Hfineisen says:

    I am really enjoying your Booker Reviews!

  2. Anokatony says:

    Unlike you, I have been a huge fan of Anne Tyler from almost the beginning of her career. However to me ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ was one of her weaker efforts. I felt the novel was over-decorated and perhaps over-perky.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder what I would have thought if I’d read more of her work. My expectations were pretty low, so I was pleasantly surprised, especially after the wobbly start.

  3. Jeanne says:

    You should read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I think it’s Tyler’s masterpiece.

  4. I listened to the audiobook of this and kind of gave up after 5 chapters. I didn’t mind the Whitshanks, I just didn’t find them very interesting. I might pick it up again eventually to finish it, but since this was my first exposure to Tyler, I was a bit disappointed.

    • Teresa says:

      I thought the last section was the best, although there was a boring stretch chronicling Abby and Red’s courtship toward the middle.

    • Denise says:

      Oh that describes my feelings to them exactly, although perhaps the novel fell victim to the “Kindle sample chapter” effect, as they really didn’t do enough in the first chapter to tempt me into buying the book. Their issues seemed not too dissimilar from those of many families all over the land.

  5. Rohan says:

    This doesn’t sound that promising – but I might trust Tyler enough to try it for myself, just in case I like it better than you did. FWIW, my favorite of her novels is Ladder of Years.

    I’m so impressed at all of you on this shadow panel! It’s so interesting following along.

  6. Lisa says:

    I also had the opposite experience. I started reading her books in college, and I read & re-read them. But I have found her later books don’t hold my interest – I feel like I’ve heard the stories before. I haven’t gone back to read any of my old favorites, though I still have them on the shelves.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve seen some reviews of this book, even positive ones, that suggest that Tyler’s stories tend to repeat themselves. I can’t imagine this kind of story being something I’d want to read all the time, even if they’re great.

  7. I never thought about how Tyler might not really appeal to younger readers, but there is something to that. You might want to read her Accidental Tourist, which is one of her more quirky stories.

    • Teresa says:

      Now that I think about it, I may have read that one in high school, but I forgot Tyler wrote it. I know I saw the movie and have a vague memory of having a copy of the book, but the movie made a stronger impression on me because I saw it first.

  8. Denise says:

    I’m glad the novel picked up for you. I will probably end up reading this at some point, and it’s good for me to know it does get better.

  9. We had some similar reactions to this but I did not mind the family at all. I found their flaws fascinating. I did object to the title and what it signifies in the book. Seemed a bit trite when considering how else she could have brought it all together. Maybe not even trite. Just unnecessary. Not sure. Irked me.

    • Teresa says:

      I think my dislike of the family is a little idiosyncratic. I get riled about what looks like class snobbery, and they rubbed me wrong in that respect, especially since I thought Tyler was playing it straight in a way that she was not. Once I realized there was a little gentle satire involved, I liked it (and them) better.

  10. lailaarch says:

    I think you might like her Digging to America. I think it’s a bit different than a lot of her novels, in that it deals with the culture barrier of an immigrant Iranian family and their assimilation into American culture. It’s my favorite of hers, in large part because my father is Iranian. But I also loved her Ladder of Years and The Amateur Marriage. She definitely writes “quirky” characters, but they also feel believable to me.

    • Teresa says:

      I think maybe one of the reasons these characters annoyed me at first was that they reminded me of people I’ve know (and been annoyed by!) So she gets points for characterization. I’ll add your suggestions to my possibilities list. This book has grown in my esteem over the past couple of days, so I’ll almost certainly try her again.

  11. Hi, Teresa. I’m not surprised to find that a discerning critic like you is not particularly impressed by Anne Tyler. I find her efforts in general amazingly middle-brow. I have read “Breathing Lessons” and two or three other of hers and for some reason, they all leave me a little cold. I consider “Breathing Lessons” the best so far, though I’ve still to read “A Spool of Blue Thread.” It I’ve had on my library wish list for some time now. I think that she suffers from the ol’ Andy Warhol fault, which is to say, Andy Warhol once made a film about sleep which lasted about eight hours, and was purely a movie of someone sleeping. Some novels about boredom are boring, for example, as if to practice mimesis were to mimic the thing too completely to be interesting. Selective details are really more interesting. Maybe “A Spool of Blue Thread” doesn’t have an adequate separation between the thing itself and the “picture” of the thing itself? Snobbery, for example?

    • Teresa says:

      I like your notion of separation, and I do think the depiction of snobbery wasn’t initially separate enough to seem to be commenting on the snobbery, but that improves as the book goes on. By the end, the myth on which the family built its snobbery was pretty well torn down. It could probably be described as middle-brow, but middle-brow in a good way, which is to say accessible with some complexity to chew on if you choose.

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