Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread was published back in 2015 and subsequently nominated for both the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize the same year. Following the Whitshank family through three generations of life in Baltimore, it’s a sort of (largely) plot-free, rambling look at American familial life that bounces back and forth in time in a free-flowing, relaxed story of everyday life. It centers around the middle generation of Red and Abby, branching off to take closer looks at their children and at Red’s parents but always coming back to the pair of them.
Tyler is known for her fleshed-out, well developed characters, and this book is no different. Right from the start there’s a sense of accuracy to Red, Abby and the family – they’re beautifully observed, and you can’t help but see parts of people you know, or indeed yourself, in the characters. The book covers a wide period of time, both in terms of the main family and the time spent looking back at Abby, Red and Junior’s history. In doing so it gives the children the chance to grow up and develop, and it gives us as readers the chance to see how history can change events that happened in the family’s past, and how perspective matters when looking at characters’ actions and motivations.
The trade off for focusing on character to such an extent is that it’s largely at the expense of plot. There are a handful of important events during the course of the book, and relationships between family members change as a result, but essentially there isn’t really a plot. Some might see that as a problem, others as an opportunity – it’s not often that we get the chance to just watch as everyday life carries on apace, and it proves to be quite fascinating.
For all that it’s mostly character-based, this a clever and well thought out book, using a few key themes – the family house (almost a character itself), a couple of family stories that the Whitshanks consider to be defining, an overarching sense of self-identity for the family – to draw everything nicely together. It doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement or overt drama, but it’s a thought provoking and enjoyable read nonetheless.