Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Home for Ties that Bind

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler


Anne Tyler's 20th novel is all about the Whitshank family, starting with Abby and Red. They live in the home that Red's father built on Bouton Road in Baltimore. Here, they raised their four children. Well, actually, only three of them are theirs. They informally adopted Douglas, the boy they call Stem. Now they're all grown up. Stem, Amanda and Jeannie are married with children of their own. Denny was married as well and has a daughter, but no one is sure if the girl is biologically his, and he's not living with her mother anymore. However, there is more, and to understand this family fully, looking at them today isn't enough. For that, you need to go back, at least three generations.

As usual, Tyler builds her story around ordinary people, the types that have sigh-inducing flaws that both endear and annoy. Moreover, while their words and deeds make us nod or shake our heads, we also see some of ourselves in these characters, or at least someone we know, often quite well. This makes Tyler's stories even more intriguing and personal for her readers. For me, one of the characters in this book struck me as coming very close to describing my own brother. Mind you, some people might feel uncomfortable with such intimate looks into our human frailties, but for many others, that's just what makes them so compelling.

Equally as important, Tyler's writing style is deceptively simple, bordering on the poetic while still ultimately accessible. The perfect example in this story is how Abby Whitshank describes the day she fell in love with Red. She says, "It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon." Think about that for a moment, if Tyler had written that without the phrase "yellow-and-green," it would have been just boring. I marveled at her choice of colors that make us feel the warmth and light of summer, as it touches the fresh grass and shady trees. In this way, and by stringing together these three words, we get much so more than the words themselves, and that is Tyler's genius. Furthermore, by using words so concisely to evoke so much, Tyler's books never have bloated descriptions, keeping us cleverly enthralled, from start to finish.

However, what really impressed me about this novel was how Tyler used the house as a metaphor for this family and their various stories, and was what I believe is the underlying theme of this novel. As Tyler deconstructs the Whitshank family, so too does she deconstruct this house. Each little situation that causes the family distress is a mirror of the signs of decay that need attention and fixing in the building. Moreover, as we go back in time to understand the family, we also go back in time to understand their connection to this house. Tyler's ability to combine carefully chosen characters, an open writing style and practically universally relatable themes makes her work so popular and - if you think about it - timeless. No wonder everyone is celebrating her 50-year career (such as in this Daily Mail article), to which I can only add my wholehearted recommendation of this novel with a full five stars out of five.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that when Anne Tyler started writing this book, she told an interviewer for the BBC that the idea of completing another novel didn't appeal to her. That was why she decided to write the book backwards - starting from the present Whitshanks and then going back one generation at a time. In this way, she believed she could go on writing the book practically forever, and never again go through the hassle of editing, revising, publishing, promoting and hoping people will like it (as if we wouldn't)! Fortunately, she realized she was only interested in three generations, and that means her readers will be pleased to see this, her 20th novel, released later this month. We can only hope that if this book is a success, it might egg her on to write one more novel (at the very least).

"A Spool of Blue Thread" by Anne Tyler, published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, release date February 10, 2015, is available to order on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from

Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in hardcover or paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for inviting me to read an advance copy of this book for Book Browse via NetGalley. This review also appears on my Times of Israel blog.

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