‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler – Furniture and Domestic Family Bliss

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler    (2015) – 358 pages   Grade: B

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In ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’, Anne Tyler has the good sense to kill off one of her major characters just when we were getting monumentally sick of their perkiness.

I feel I’ve earned the right to crack wise about Anne Tyler, because I’ve read 19 out of 20 of her novels through the years since 1977.  Somehow I missed ‘Noah’s Compass’.  Despite my having a little fun at Anne Tyler’s expense, I find her novels insanely readable and often absurdly moving.

This novel is not Tyler’s best.   It probably will not make my end-of-year Top 10 list since I’ve already read two other books this year that are superior to ‘Blue Thread’.   It is too scattershot with scenes spanning four generations and seventy years.   There does not seem to be a unifying theme to the novel beyond domestic family bliss.

The novel begins with a promising plot line about a prodigal son. The son Denny is the black sheep of the Whitshank family in this novel.  It is obvious that Anne Tyler has not a clue what a real black sheep is.  A real black sheep could do a million and one terrible destructive things, but Tyler has him do none of that.  For Tyler, a black sheep would forget to defrost the hamburger for the family dinner or be angry for no good reason.  That is about the extent of human evil in this Tyler novel.

However whatever tension or drama this black sheep brings to the novel is dissipated as other stories and other generations are pursued instead.  If you want a real prodigal son novel, read ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson in which the son is an actual terrible human being.

Also there’s way too much about carpentry and home furnishings in ‘A Spool of Blue Thread.  I realize that furniture is her chosen metaphor for domestic family bliss and that she uses the production and care of furniture to show her characters’ admirable qualities, but still too much furniture over-decorates a room or a novel.

spool_of_thread_3188819aIn Anne Tyler, even the intentions of a twenty-six year old man who does it with a thirteen year-old girl are honorable. This man is not the black sheep but is the patriarch of the family.  This patriarch does build fine woodwork.

But ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ is still Anne Tyler.  Despite my criticisms above, you will be moved.  If you have never read Anne Tyler before, you will find this novel just about the greatest thing.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Robin Dawson on March 6, 2015 at 8:42 PM

    I have to ask ……. having read 19 of her 20 novels, which do you think are Tyler’s best?

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    • Hi Robin,
      The first two Anne Tylers I read, ‘Searching for Caleb’ and ‘Celestial Navigation’ got me permanently hooked on Anne Tyler. She has a gentle way of dealing with odd characters that is life affirming. My all-time favorite is probably ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’, although several others are quite good.
      After I read the first two listed above, I went back and read her early work. I was quite impressed with ‘A Slipping-Down Life’ much liking its spareness. That is what I see as missing from ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ which seemed over-decorated to me.

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      • I liked Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant too. I also liked The ladder of years, and The accidental tourist. I’ve never forgotten that one.

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        • Hi WhisperingGums,
          The three you mention are all great. I would not have read 19 of her novels if I wasn’t always continually impressed with her work. I discovered her at about the same time as Alice Munro, another writer I just about always read.

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  2. I’ve only read about 6 of hers Tony but I agree about finding “her novels insanely readable and often absurdly moving”. She’s great to read – warm, but always with a little bit of humour and or oddity. I need to find time to read some of the more recent ones because of that.

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    • Hi WG,
      So many of Ann Tyler’s early novels are so wondrous, it becomes difficult to maintain the same state of wonder over the years. Thus I may underrate her later novels to some extent. Of her later novels, I did find ‘The Amateur Marriage’ to be excellent.

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