07 Sep Book Review | A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler
Think of all the films and TV shows you’ve watched that are set in suburban America or have at least featured a facet of suburban American life. Gilmore Girls, Superbad and more recently, Stranger Things to name but a few of my favourites of the top of my head.
There is something comforting about this setting. From the local stores to the impeccable streets, it’s a homely, cosy and familiar setting. When I was staying in New York one of my most memorable parts is just driving down random streets, bathed in sunshine and feeling like I’m in one of those movies. It’s silly I know. They always have a different feel to suburban areas here in the UK though. Perhaps its because the sun is pretty much ALWAYS shining in these suburban American settings, who knows.
They might just be settings, always there in the background, but they set the overall feel-good tone for the TV show or film in question. Or in the case of Stranger Things and other horror/fantasy titles, an initial sense of ease.
Anne Tyler’s Man Booker shortlisted “A Spool of Blue Thread” is all about suburban American life. Almost the entire story takes place on Bouton Road in a little suburban area in Baltimore where the Whitshank house was built and has seen three generations of Whitshanks live and grow.
Anne Tyler shatters the illusion of perfection that Abby Whitshank strives for from her and her husband Red’s impeccable house to their kids who were raised just the way they should have been. Everything is as it should be. Except the cracks still show.
Abby isn’t one to be phased by this though. A social worker, she prides herself on making good in bad situations, that not everything is perfect but it’s how you handle adversity is what’s important.
The beloved Whitshank house was built by Red’s father and when him and his wife died in a car crash, it was passed on to Abby and Red. The story begins not with Abby and Red moving into the house but with them there alone after their children have all left home to begin their own families elsewhere.
We see the trouble child, Denny, come and go throughout the years, adopted child Stem bringing his kids over to see their grandparents, and daughters Jeannie and Amanda raising their kids too. The Whitshank family is by no means perfect, but we watch their family trundle on throughout the years passing through dull days, sad days and happy days.
Initially, I found the book difficult to follow. Mainly because it does not flow in a linear way rather it pulls us in all sorts of directions referencing the present day and the past, jumping forward years in just a couple of paragraphs. In this sense, it is hard to see where the book is going and what point Tyler is trying to make with it.
It’s split up into chapters but until the last few chapters it’s difficult to see any sort of differentiation or point in having chapters because it is just unfolding the same jumpy details and anecdotes.
This might sound a bit laborious. And admittedly, there was a point where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue reading the book actually. Rather than being intrigued to see where the story was going I kept settling on what I thought the book was going to focus on and then seeing the focus continually shift which I found irritating.
For instance, the book begins with a lengthy insight into problem-child, Denny. This led me to think that the book would be focused around figuring out what his deal is. But, it just isn’t. Granted there is a focus on him moreso than the other Whitshank children but it is by no means what the story is about.
In fact, I couldn’t really tell you what the story is about.
It just follows the Whitshank family’s life throughout the present day and what has passed. In this sense it is unlike anything I have read before. Tyler just about manages to make it work because it is a nice story to read. Everyone can relate to, well, living, watching the years go by and wondering why they pass so quickly. And it’s always fascinating to have an insight into others lives’.
What Tyler does really well is make us genuinely care about the characters and all their little quirks. Especially Abby Whitshank as we watch her and Red pass through being middle aged and arrive somewhere between there and being elderly. Red begins having accidents at work such as falling off ladders and Abby begins to have complete memory blanks. This is a difficult transition for her and her kids to come to terms with.
Tyler’s characters are multi-faceted which I really liked. None of them are perfect. We see both their flaws and their good qualities and this brings a heightened sense of realism to the story.
“A Spool Full of Blue Thread” has an unsatisfactory ending but I don’t think it could have been done any other way. If it was the satisfactory, happy ending that we as readers unwittingly hope for, then it would have been just unrealisitc and mawkish and had an even more unsatisfactory end.
Rather, life just moves on and we are reminded of Abby’s conversation with Jeannie –
“The trouble with dying,” she’d told Jeannie once “is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending.”
“But, Mom, there is no ending” Jeannie said
Tyler causes us to re-examine small pieces of everyday life in different ways. Her focus on issues such as growing old and how life can continue on without the ones we love being with us aren’t new questions to us, and while Tyler doesn’t have any conclusive answers, like most of this book, it’s just like sitting down with a friendly face and having a chat about them.