We’re definitely in remembered territory in my Anne Tyler 2021 project now; weirdly, I bought this in 2015, and first read it in November 2016, having acquired “The Beginner’s Goodbye” that year, too. I must have missed that one coming out, I suppose.

Now, I did have to hurry this one a bit, as you can tell if reading this on the day by the fact that I haven’t published this review until the afternoon, rather than having it scheduled and ready to go in the morning, but it didn’t feel like such a return to form as I thought last time. To be honest, I didn’t love the structure and felt it dragged it back a bit. However, last time I read it, I thought it was going to be Tyler’s last novel apart from “Vinegar Girl”; now I own the next two and know there’s one coming out early next year. So maybe that coloured my first read of the novel.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “A Spool of Blue Thread”

(29 December 2015)

In the Whitshank family, two stories had traveled down through the generations. These stories were viewed as quintessential – as defining in some way – and every famly member, including Stem’s three-year-old, had heard them told and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times. (p. 51)

In this longer novel than she’d written for a while, we’re thrown straight into Red and Abby Whitshank’s life with a snapshot in 1994 when their disappearing son, Denny, phones to announce somewhat randomly that he’s gay. Red barks, Abby fusses, and there they are in summary. Not only does Denny follow the Disappearing Child Tyler trope, he is skinny with lank black hair – tick! And there are four children, and Abby and Red live in Red’s family home.

After going through a lot of Red and Abby’s later parental years, where their children grow and have their children, they decline and care has to be sorted out (another Tyler theme of course), we then hop back and forth, to their courtship and then to Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie. Bits of contemporary life are threaded in, Denny coming and going, sibling rivalries and upsets, cousins following family trends and some lovely circular links around particularly parenthood or lack of, and the descriptions of the house. Character traits continue through people’s lives – for example Abby is a keeper of secrets even though she seems so chatty and intrusive.

I think one of the themes is the memories that disappear when we die. Linnie and Junior’s family life is unknown by the time Red and Abby are in their prime, but their section fills in details of their parents that their descendants never knew. Family stories have an importance only to the teller – Abby constantly starts the story of when she fell for Red but their section starts with her particular sentence when we know she will remember it no more. It’s a clever way to do it, but I’m not sure it’s that engaging. It’s also a good social document of course, of Depression era poverty and 50s consumerism, and the way family relationships develop over time.

Other Tyler tropes include of course the family home, changes to it, upkeep and then slow decline. An older man moving into an apartment is getting more and more common, and aged family dogs feature once more. Abby is a common Tyler woman, with her “orphans” invited to family meals and occasions and her fussing and trying to get information out of people, and her son Stem is at one stage the stalk-necked, pale and silent child who crops up a lot. Son-in-law Hugh doesn’t have a huge role but is one of the people who flits from job to job and is currently running a Thanksgiving-themed restaurant. There’s even one of those journeys, right at the end, where you feel Tyler could have told the stories of any of the other characters flitting around in the sidelines – or maybe she already has. The religion side has retreated again: Nora, wife of their youngest son, is a member of a church but doesn’t force anyone else to go or introduce it into their lives, just smiles serenely and cooks and cares and somehow incites people to rage.

Have you read this one? What did you think?