Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread // Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread cracks open a window to peer into the sprawling, diverse lives of a ‘regular’ family. This beautifully written novel gently enthrals, coaxing the reader to wonder about the story behind each wonderfully individual character. The fact that the story begins with emphasis on a ‘normal’ family shows that there is, in fact, no such thing.

One of the values I gained from this novel was the value of family. The dependence the Whitshank family have on one other is woven deeply in the family and the text, even subconsciously for some of the characters. Denny Whitshank is a typically rebellious teenager, anxious to break out of the confines of his home. Yet he finds himself returning home repeatedly, as if he can’t quite detach himself from the ‘thread’ that keeps him tied to his family. This contrasts to the ease at which Junior and Linnie Mae Whitshank cut the strings of their family; it is clear they did not have the same experience of family life. This enhances the beauty of how strong the Whitshank family is. Despite it sounding cheesy and ‘obvious’, it really made me see how fortunate I am to have the family that I do, and how my childhood and family have shaped who I am. I think what Tyler is saying is that, in a way, we are all a little bit like Denny, wanting to pull away and find independence. However, in doing this, we must remember our roots and the threads that connect us.

Another aspect of this novel I enjoyed was the power and prominence the female characters hold. I find that in a lot of novels, women are presented in the extreme; there is either a woman who breaks the socially accepted morals and is the image of strength but in doing this her femininity is removed, or there is a woman who passively submits to the dominance of a man and stays within the confines of a ‘good’ wife – usually with no emphasis on her flaws. However, Tyler unflinchingly breaks through these stereotypes, presenting a much more realistic array of strong yet flawed women.

Only to analyse a couple of female characters, as there are many, first there is Abby. As the mother of the story, she shows a deep, unwavering devotion to her children and her husband, but is sometimes grating in her clinginess and insensitive actions. Denny seems to be scarred by the sudden integration of Stem, an adopted child, into the family, which he seems to blame on Abby. Moreover, Tyler delves into her past and it is revealed that Abby did not allow herself to be pressured into having sex with her boyfriend of the time, Dane, indicating her emotional strength. Like tar, tacky and viscous, she seems to get in the way and cause discomfort but ultimately, useful and steadfast, she holds her family together.

Another character I found interesting was Linnie Mae. On first mentioning she seems quite two-dimensional: the quiet, placid wife of Junior, and the reader is invited to give her little thought. Yet when Tyler peels back the layers and provides insight into Linnie Mae’s past, it is revealed that she was bold and forward with Junior in what she wanted. Considering this being set in, assumedly, the 50s or 60s, the directness with which she acts towards a male both sexually and romantically causes the reader to be pleasantly surprised by her brazenness. Then again, she foolishly romanticises the connection between herself and Junior, who it revealed as about thirteen years older; they first engaged sexually when she was only thirteen, which causes our pity to firmly lie with her. The ethics of their relationship requires a whole other review, so I will remain focused on her character: her resilience towards the cutting and self-centred Junior, who repeatedly scoffs “women!”, is admirable. Unfazed, she quietly dominates his ‘masculinity’, while not having to sacrifice her femininity.

The rawness of the characters is engaging. They are created in a way in which they seamlessly become part of our society. as if they are real, living people; as you are reading, you almost forget that they are fictional. Tyler has elegantly created a story that homes in on ‘ordinary’ issues and relationships, and presents them in a way that gives clarity to our own issues and relationships.

Words by India Woodward

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1 Comment

  • A lovely, lovely book and you’ve picked out nicely some of the most telling bits. One thing though, the Junior and Linnie section is set in Twenties and Thirties, not the 50s. They are dealing with the aftermath of the 1926 Crash and subsequent recession. Her brazenness is possibly all the more remarkable then.

    So many great characters – the comically rude and arrogant, but not caricatured, Merrick; the permanently seething Jeannie; the hidden depths of holy Nora; Denny with his alienation and slowly revealed self-awareness; even the two largely unseen Hughs have a presence.

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