A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of the Whitshank family, spanning across several generations. We learn the story of Abby and her husband Red as they slip into old age and start to unravel; their children Denny, Stem, Amanda and Jeannie attempt to support them. We also learn about Red’s parents’ relationship and their buying the family home, and Red and Abby as they fall in love in their youth. Anne Tyler’s simple, elegant writing style, delicately presents family life almost perfectly, and while the novel is no more eventful than everyday life, this turns out to be enough.
What Anne Tyler does best is portray family dynamics. While reading the novel you really feel that Whitshank family are real. You learn just enough about Abby and Red’s children and grandchildren, making them all subtly similar and dissimilar. While some individual characters are more relatable than others, their relationships and interactions between them are entirely convincing. Themes of family feuds alongside themes of old age, career concerns, first love and secrecy are presented realistically, but at the same time absorbingly, and it is incredibly easy to become invested in the Whitshank family.
Abby was by far my favourite character; she is both the heart of the family and of the novel. As a social carer she is incredibly caring and accommodating, and it is interesting to see her as she grows older, and eventually becomes the one who is in need of help herself. Her sweet character is charming and humouring when she and Red are old, but also when she is a young girl – the time hop being effective and insightful. Her love for her family and determination to keep them all together and happy was entirely convincing, as was her marriage with her husband Red. The relationship of Red’s parents’ was also a particular highlight; their slow building feud that came to a head over a disagreement about the colour that the porch swing should be painted was slightly ridiculous, but equally spot-on.
There were characters I felt more distanced from, particularly Abby and Red’s most attractive, maddening and slightly insolent son, Denny. I found his character frustrating, and also partially unbelievable. As such, I had to suspend my disbelief in parts, and was not hooked by the purposeful hints and vagueness surrounding his story line. Nevertheless, Anne Tyler’s irony surrounding Denny was humouring; the most exasperating son was his mother’s favourite, not that he seemed to notice this, and the other children often seemed to fight for her attention, despite Denny’s obvious unawareness.
Overall, I enjoyed this heart-warming, realistic depiction of family life. While it was not necessarily gripping me at every page, I did find myself invested in the Whitshank family, and very much enjoyed Anne Tyler’s writing.