A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge. This novel is categorized as Literary Fiction and was nominated for the Booker Prize.
This post contains spoilers.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Spool of Blue Thread is the latest novel (and possibly the last, according to a recent interview) by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler. In looking over the list of twenty books she has written, I was surprised to discover that I had not read any of them. How is that possible, since all of the titles sound so familiar? Literary fiction is not my usual reading choice, though, so that likely explains it. And I’ve never been one to pick up a book just because it’s popular or on the bestseller shelf. A Spool of Blue Thread, therefore, is my introduction to Anne Tyler and her character-driven novels.
The Wrong Title
First off, let me state that the book has the wrong title. While blue is definitely a color that is mentioned throughout the book, the spool of blue thread is a very small part of the book. Instead, the house that Junior Whitshank built for a client and eventually bought for his family’s residence is an integral part of the story – it could even be considered one of the characters – and so the book might more aptly be titled “The House on Bouton Road.”
Tyler does a nice job of fleshing out her characters, revealing both strengths and foibles through their interactions with family members. As in many families, birth order determines the characters’ actions and family dynamics. The opening chapter is devoted to Denny, the youngest child until the family quasi-adopts the younger Stem. Denny’s prickly demeanor, his obstinacy and anger, and the way he distances himself from the family, sometimes disappearing for years at a time with no contact, create issues for the family throughout the book. His storyline is the nearest thing to an actual plot and resolution that I could find.
As Roberta states in her Writer’s Analysis, the Whitshank family has two stories that they tell and retell. The family tells these stories with pride, as they show that family members acquired things (or people) they wanted by working patiently to those ends. But the stories also reveal that these things were acquired through stealth and possible chicanery, and maybe even some amount of lying and backstabbing on the part of Merritt concerning her best friend’s fiance.
One story that is not part of the family lore is how Linnie Mae and Junior met and eventually married. At the beginning of the chapter that reveals their relationship, it appears that Junior holds all the power and Linnie Mae is his under-aged victim, but by the end of the chapter it is obvious that Linnie Mae is just as intentional and devious as Junior. Eventually Junior realizes that he’s been the unwitting “victim” of Linnie Mae’s designs to leave her hometown and get married and that Linnie Mae is not the gullible and naive young girl she seemed to be. I enjoyed this back story of Junior and Linnie Mae as it revealed the quiet power that the matriarch of the Whitshanks had and showed that daughter Merritt’s actions in acquiring her husband might not be totally due to traits she had inherited from her father, but possibly also from her mother.
Why Read Literary Fiction?
As I previously stated, literary fiction is not my normal choice of reading material. I prefer a book with a well-crafted plot and a satisfying resolution, a book that takes me somewhere I’ve never been and allows me to experience something I’m not likely to do myself. But Roberta and I have noticed that whenever we read a book classified as literary fiction, we end up discussing family situations and family dynamics from our youth. A Spool of Blue Thread was no exception. Roberta’s family took in “strays” when she was a child, as did my husband’s family, and my family had a member who was “farmed out” as a teenager. Obviously these books, whether we like them or not, are providing us with food for thought and topics for discussion. Maybe that’s the point of literary fiction – not to take you to some new place, but to take you back to an old place or time in your life and allow you to see it from a fresh perspective.
Are you a fan of Anne Tyler? Do you have a favorite Anne Tyler book that you would recommend, one that would give me a better understanding as to why her books are so popular?
- Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
- Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
- Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective
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What are we reading next?
If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.
The next book is number 83. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009) – Discussion begins July 10, 2017.
Thank you for proposing this rationale for reading literary fiction, or at least the subset of it that deals with family dynamics. I agree, as I’m reading something like this, I think about people from my family who fit into the same family slots as the characters. We also took in strays in my family (I actually took in a couple myself when my daughter was young) but I hadn’t drawn the connection until you mentioned it. What struck me more was Red and Abby as they were growing older; I was comparing their experience to my parents’. I didn’t really think Tyler did a great job with the Denny character – what was up with that phone call at the beginning, anyway, where he told Red he was gay? Was that ever resolved? – but I did think Red & Abby were fully drawn. Nora was interesting, too – we have one Nora and another partial-Nora in my family; I’m very grateful to have them when we need them, but as with the Nora in the book, sometimes you just want to tell them to stop mothering everyone.
As for other Tyler book recommendations – I remember liking The Accidental Tourist when I read it back in the 80s, but it’s possible that was just because of the time of life I was in. I think I also read Ladder of Years and enjoyed it.
Tyler definitely needed to explain more about Denny, give us his thoughts more rather than viewing him mostly from the eyes of the other family members. Was Denny a problem child before Stem came along? Or did his issues begin only after Stem joined the family? But I definitely understood the family tiptoeing around all the issues Denny presented. Been there, done that with different family members. Still doing that for some, unfortunately.