This is my first introduction to American author Anne Tyler. I knew her by reputation but have never read her before. Her latest novel, her 20th in a 51 year publishing career is selling so well it is likely to be many readers’ introduction to her work. I picked this up as part of Richard & Judy’s Book Club promotion – Buy one and get another for £1. This one leapt out at me, it is the one I wanted. I had to spend some time choosing the additional £1 book – this seemed to be in a different class to the others, and yet, would still be a perfect Book Club choice.
Feedback about this book has been extremely positive and there was the suggestion that it had wide appeal, turning up on Book Prize short and long lists as well as being a popular favourite and word-of-mouth bestseller. I cleared my mind of all the hype (“One of the finest novelists of modern times” – Bella Magazine. “How can it be so wonderful?”- Washington Post. “Every sentence is perfect” – The Sun – the list goes on) and sat down and read…………and read……….and read………
I found it genuinely hard to put this book down and now have that feeling of loss got only when you have the finest literary experiences. I wasn’t really expecting an American family saga to sweep me away, but it is up there amongst the best I’ve read this year, if not the best, and has all the characteristics for me to recommend it as one of my 100 Essential Reads.
This is the tale of four generations of the Whitshank family. Unusually, it is structured so it tends to move back in time. This gives Tyler the opportunity to use the family anecdote as a framework. Every family has a few stories that are told over and over again, slightly reshaped by the telling and often moving through the generations. The Whitshanks have two such stories, which they use as examples of holding out for what you want. Moving the plot back in time picks up the moments when these stories originate, after we have become familiar with the present oft-told version.
The central characters Abby and Red Whitshank reside in a house that belonged to and was very special to Red’s father. It remains central for their family of four children and their children. Amongst Abby and Red’s offspring is the gloriously unreliable Denny, the son who disappears and turns up throughout his adult life and gives very little away. The sense of frustration towards him is one of the things that binds this generation together. The novel starts with him, in a typical act, phoning his parents to tell them he is gay and then hanging up – a revelation which is never brought up again or seems to have any basis for truth. The family also have to increasingly face up to the age-related failings of Abby and Red.
This branch of the family were so beautifully drawn that when there was a shift to the younger Abby and Red and his parents, Junior and Linnie Mae, I thought my enjoyment might diminish but it did not. Within all the generations there’s the odd surprise which I didn’t see coming but which Tyler manages to seamlessly introduce into the plot – often with a sentence that just changes everything. I can see why she is being called one of the most accomplished authors of our time.
Her books are generally set in the Baltimore area and seem to be all stand-alones meaning I have the opportunity to pick and choose what I want to read next. (I’m usually such a stickler for reading authors work in chronological order, but as I’ve started with her 20th I feel confident I can go anywhere from here through the Tyler oeuvre. Any suggestions anyone?
This was an excellent introduction and a perfect example of a highly readable, high quality work with bags of appeal.
A Spool Of Blue Thread is printed in the UK in 2015 paperback by Vintage (Penguin Books)