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