Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is a three generation family saga centered on the Whitshanks – Red, his wife Abby, their four grown children. The one we get to know best is Denny, the “black sheep” of the family. Denny has been disgruntled since he was four years old and Abby and Red took in the “orphan” child of Red’s employee. Only it turns out that he did have a mother – just one that wasn’t acceptable to Abby. There was no formal adoption, no announcement – two year old “Stem” just moved in and stayed. Abby, a retired social worker, has a penchant for rescuing people, taking in strangers for meals, most of whom soon exhibit the reasons why nobody else wants them. Since his teen years, Denny has popped in and out of the lives of his family, but he sometimes disappears for years at a time.
The Whitshanks are not an extraordinary family in any way. In fact, they are dull. Denny brings about the only element of drama to their lives, and it is the source for much disappointment and resentment all around.
We learn the backstory of Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie Mae, and the significance of the Whitshank house to the family’s history, which was originally built for another family by Junior. The house itself is an important character in the book.
This is domestic fiction at its finest. Tyler’s excellent way with words is, in a word, delicious. And her sense of humor is firmly intact. Yet, this story has a melancholy about it that gives the reader plenty to think about outside of the non-doings of the Whitshanks.
This is a good, discussible book that would make a great selection for book groups.