Disclaimer: I’m a little bit on the fence with this one. Despite Anne Tyler‘s long and distinguished career—including publishing 20 novels in just over 50 years and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons (1988)—the 2015 Man Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread is the first of her books that I’ve actually read. Overall, I’m a little disappointed.
If there’s one thing Tyler’s writing is commonly known for, it is exploring American family and marriage; the everyday, ordinary details of life. Her latest novel is no different: Denny Whitshank embodies the idea of detachment versus attachment; a longing for freedom battling against the need to settle down and mature. His mother Abby is the picture of devout, familial love.
The story here is that there is really no story. Tyler chronicles the multitude of arguments, exasperations, secrets and jealousies that make up every family narrative. There’s nothing wrong with her writing, at times both beautiful and charming as we explore the Whitshank family across multiple generations. Linnie and Junior, their son Red and his wife Abby—in addition to their four kids and three grandchildren. The jumps from past to present, and vice-versa, are never jarring—indeed the different viewpoints occasionally bring about interesting revelations not spotted before.
The problem is, this happens too rarely: for some people the slow, meandering narrative that unspools—rather like its title suggests—is what will make the story what it is. The tiny nuances of the novel may intrigue and delight as the novel begins to surrender its secrets. Unfortunately, there’s no big climax, nothing revelatory enough to warrant the build up. Of course, that’s the point: there isn’t supposed to be—but so often was I left wanting more. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood.
Tyler writes quirky, eccentric characters, but designs them in a way that the Whitshank family could be any of us: each with our flattering attributes, and those not so endearing. Perhaps this is why it is difficult to invest in any of the family—at times I struggled to feel a thing for any of them, despite the fascinating way in which Tyler explores the family dynamic, pointing out that we can all be blind to other people’s wants and desires.
Overall, this was far from a bad read. Tyler writes with enough verve and humour to carry the book forward—but I think in some ways this is a Marmite book. Harbouring a need for high-octane action and a page-turning “thriller”? A Spool of Blue Thread is not for you. If, on the other hand, you would prefer a slow-burning mediation on what family really is all about—there may just be nobody better than Anne Tyler.