The backstory: A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler's twentieth novel, is on the 2015 Bailey Prize short list. Update: it was also on the 2015 Booker Prize short list.
The basics: A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of the Whitshank family over four generations in Baltimore.
My thoughts: For years, Anne Tyler was one of those authors I was embarassed to not have read. When The Beginner's Goodbye came out three years ago, I read it and was disappointed. There were some highlights, to be sure, but I found it uneven overall. When A Spool of Blue Thread came out, I was intrigued, as I love family sagas, but the first reviewers expressed disappointment, so I thought I would skip this one and revisit her earlier acclaimed novels. Then, when it was longlisted for the Baileys Prize (and since short listed), I knew I would read it. I opted for audio because it was available immediately at the library.
Tyler drops the reader right into the Whitshank family in an unclear year. There were some clues, but I spent as much time trying to get my bearings as I did trying to get to know the Whitshanks (this experience may have been exacerbated on audio.) This beginning allows Tyler to cover a lot of ground very quickly and to introduce the reader to Red and Abby, and their four children, very quickly. The first half of the novel is mostly straight-forward, so when the action jumped back fifty years to Red and Abby's courtship, I was surprised. (I adored that technique in Monique Roffey's phenomenal novel White Woman on the Green Bicycle. It was less successful here because it didn't feel the only or obvious option; it felt a bit like a gimmick.)
For the most part, the non-linear story worked here, and it allowed for a few retroactive surprises to have more power. But as each time jump came, it took me awhile to engage with the story. Tyler writes fascinating, well-rounded characters in this novel, and to jump away from so many with each generation jump had me spending as much time missing the younger Whitshanks as it did trying to get to know the older ones (when they were the younger ones.) Ultimately, I liked the narrative technique, but at times it was clunky. Most notably, I found the ending abrupt and anti-climactic. When the audiobook ended, I was genuinely surprised the last scene was the last, as it felt so inconsequential. Perhaps that was Tyler's point, but it was a let down after a novel of so many interesting moments, both every day moments and life-changing ones.
The verdict: A Spool of Blue Thread is a good, entertaining family saga, but I wanted it to be great. While the non-linear storytelling enhanced some elements of the story, it also made for a rather abrupt and anti-climactic ending. I enjoyed the listening experience more than I enjoyed the book over all, as it wasn't as good as other multi-generational family sagas I've read lately. While I liked it, I don't think it will be a book that sticks with me or keeps me thinking about its characters now that I've finished it.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 13 hours 23 minutes (368 pages)
Publication date: February 10, 2015
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P.S. The British cover is so much better for this story!
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