Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

“In the Whitshank family, two stories had travelled down through the generations. These stories were viewed as quintessential – as defining, in some way – and every family member, including Stem’s three-year-old, had heard them told and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times.”

It is, in a way, this mythmaking that all of us take part in that A Spool of Blue Thread is all about. Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel is also – simply – about family. But that is a subject at once so ordinary in its familiarity and at the same time extraordinary in its unique complications and dramas, that it takes the deft hands of an author like Tyler to raise it above the commonplace or maudlin.

This is a novel about the stories that are shared across three generations of Whitshanks, the ones told with fond reminisces and laughter as well as the stories that never see the light of day. It’s about small omissions, misunderstandings and disappointment, hope and heartbreak. It’s about love and forgiveness.

We meet Abby and Red at the book’s opening as their four grown children rally round them to find a solution to their living situation as Red’s heart weakens and Abby begins showing signs of senility. No one can quite imagine the Whitshanks living anywhere but the house on Bouton Road, perched up on the hill under the shade of the poplar trees. Especially when Junior Whitshank, the family patriarch, put such effort into establishing it as the central pillar of his story. But needs must.

As sibling rivalry and old wounds are exposed in such close quarters, Abby’s wandering mind traces back through the years to question what brought them to this place. There were choices she and Red made when the children were younger, but those had been made with their best intentions at heart. Even if, in retrospect, the consequences weren’t quite as positive as she had hoped.

The story reaches further back, to when Abby first fell in love with Red – on a ‘beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning in July of 1959’ – and then further still to the darker secrets that locked Junior and his wife, Linnie Mae, to each other as they fled their past to Baltimore in the 1930s.

But as tragedy bowls through the present-day Whitshank clan, they must learn again what it means to be a family and how to pull together the threads of a story and rebuild.

This is an incredibly moving book that will have you laughing with recognition in one moment at the silly things families do and say and then wanting to call your mum in the next to tell you’ll always love her and hold her close. It’s a book with real heart, and one that will remind you that, even though we don’t choose them and though they often drive us crazy, there’s nothing quite like family.

To hear Anne Tyler discuss A Spool of Blue Thread with BBC Radio 4 presenter Mariella Frostrup, check out this episode of Open Book.

Image by Sophia Nicholas

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