Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review of A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I have noticed that I have reading experiences connected to big memories.  I remember my trip to Seattle before it was home, when the city was a dot of  “maybe” on the vast horizon of life. I was reading Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and I couldn’t put the book down, even as the water and mountains pulled me out to this new place. There was something captivating about Tyler’s writing, and it is bound up in my memories about being young and having so many choices to make.

Tyler has a twenty book resumé at this point (including a Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons), and she has said that A Spool of Blue Thread will be her last. In many respects, this book is “classic” Tyler: a quirky Baltimore family struggles with its secrets. What is new is the way that the aging process impacts that family.  Red and Abby are the parents, and they live in a giant house that Red’s father built when he was a child. Their adult children – two girls and two boys – navigate the future of the family as Abby begins to have gaps in her memory.

I found this book, like most of Tyler’s novels, to be immensely readable. I needed no grace period to come to know the characters. It was like there was an extra seat at the family table, and I was invited to come to dinner (like the “orphans” that Abby brings home for family meals). But, that said, there was something not-quite-right about this book for me, and upon reflection, I think it was the structure. In this book, the climax happens in the middle, and then it kind of dribbles its way to the end. The book starts in the current-day and ends in the past, with a weird zig-and-zag to that point. It’s almost as if Tyler wrote the story and then disassembled it. The result is a book with an odd pace.

One thing that I’ve been chewing on is whether I think the title and cover of this book do it justice.  The spool of blue thread is a real item in the book and is symbolic of the connectivity of these family members.  But I thought the house was a larger symbol and played a bigger role in both the fracture of the family and the enduring connectedness. In fact, there’s a blue swing in the book that means so much more than the blue thread.

And with that, I think the “spool of blue thread” on the cover screams, “Women’s Fiction!” in a way that does not adequately match the story itself. While the book is certainly “domestic fiction,” the relationship between fathers and sons is a huge theme, as is the idea of men striking out on their own. The title and cover minimize the audience for this book by putting it into a genre box that doesn’t quite fit.

Tyler gives very few interviews, but here’s a radio broadcast. And here’s a recent print interview. Both contain spoilers, so check them out at your own risk.

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