A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread
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A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne Tyler

It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon…

This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she and Red fell in love that summer’s day in 1959. The whole family on the porch, half-listening as their mother tells the same tale they have heard so many times before.

From that porch we spool back through the generations, witnessing the events, secrets and unguarded moments that have come to define the family. From Red’s father and mother, newly arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red’s grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century - four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their home…


Anne Tyler writes about families; usually they are quite ordinary, middle-class families. They might have a few quirks but mostly they, like the rest of us, are trying to navigate their lives as best they can. In short, they are unremarkable. That is Tyler’s strength: like Alice Munro, she manages to make the mundane absolutely absorbing and draw characters that are believable and recognisable. Abby and Red Whitshank’s family have grown up mostly successful, apart from Abby’s favourite child, Denny, who seems unable to settle down or commit and is largely unreachable except when he chooses to drift back into their lives

Abby is starting to have memory lapses – calling their dog, Brenda, ‘Clarence’, which was the name of their old dog – and Red suffers a minor stroke. The idea of a retirement home is anathema and their youngest son, Douglas, and his wife, Norah, decide to move into the big family house to keep an eye on them. This brings latent family tensions to the surface as Douglas, the youngest, was adopted and it’s he who is taking over the family construction business. Abby was forever taking in her strays and orphans; Douglas was the one who stayed.

While the family doesn’t unravel, Tyler strips back the facades of various family myths, fictions of the kind that many families construct to paper over tensions. While I have some reservations about the structure of the book, A Spool of Blue Thread is utterly engrossing, enjoyable and, at times, illuminating

Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings.

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