- File Size: 2869 KB
- Print Length: 482 pages
- Publisher: Vintage (February 10, 2015)
- Publication Date: February 10, 2015
- Sold by: Random House LLC
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1101874287
- ISBN-13: 978-1101874288
- ASIN: B00MSS0WVY
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Not Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #36,734 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2015: It’s pretty clear that Anne Tyler is comfortable with the art of storytelling. From the first lines of A Spool of Blue Thread, there’s an urge to sit back and settle into the cadence of her words. Or, rather, Abby Whitshank’s words as she recounts the story of how she fell in love with Red Whitshank in 1959. But don’t get too comfortable. Anne Tyler understands that, despite their best intentions, family members don’t often let each other settle back for very long—and the Whitshanks, a Baltimore clan whose history is told through several generations in this sensitive and empathetic novel, is no different than most. As Abby and Red age, their children are drawn back to their sprawling house. When the second part of the novel moves back in time, the shift is jarring at first; but after a fifty year writing career (this is her 20th novel), Tyler has the end in sight. This is a book about the stories we tell each other and the little moments that make up our lives. – Chris Schluep--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
And then, “Well, hey there.”
Abby turned from the mirror, both arms still raised to her head.
“What’s that,” he said, without a question mark.
“Huh?” he said. “Oh, what the hell, Denny!”
Abby dropped her arms.
“Hello?” he said. “Wait. Hello? Hello?”
He was silent for a moment, and then he replaced the receiver.
“What?” Abby asked him.
“Says he’s gay.”
“Said he needed to tell me something: he’s gay.”
“And you hung up on him!”
“No, Abby. He hung up on me. All I said was ‘What the hell,’ and he hung up on me. Click! Just like that.”
“Oh, Red, how could you?” Abby wailed. She spun away to reach for her bathrobe—a no-color chenille that had once been pink. She wrapped it around her and tied the sash tightly. “What possessed you to say that?” she asked him.
“I didn’t mean anything by it! Somebody springs something on you, you’re going to say ‘What the hell,’ right?”
Abby grabbed a handful of the hair that pouffed over her forehead.
“All I meant was,” Red said, “ ‘What the hell next, Denny? What are you going to think up next to worry us with?’ And he knew I meant that. Believe me, he knew. But now he can make this all my fault, my narrow-mindedness or fuddy-duddiness or whatever he wants to call it. He was glad I said that to him. You could tell by how fast he hung up on me; he’d been just hoping all along that I would say the wrong thing.”
“All right,” Abby said, turning practical. “Where was he calling from?”
“How would I know where he was calling from? He doesn’t have a fixed address, hasn’t been in touch all summer, already changed jobs twice that we know of and probably more that we don’t know of . . . A nineteen-year-old boy and we have no idea what part of the planet he’s on! You’ve got to wonder what’s wrong, there.”
“Did it sound like it was long distance? Could you hear that kind of rushing sound? Think. Could he have been right here in Baltimore?”
“I don’t know, Abby.”
She sat down next to him. The mattress slanted in her direction; she was a wide, solid woman. “We have to find him,” she said. Then, “We should have that whatsit—caller ID.” She leaned forward and gazed fiercely at the phone. “Oh, God, I want caller ID this instant!”
“What for? So you could phone him back and he could just let it ring?”
“He wouldn’t do that. He would know it was me. He would answer, if he knew it was me.”
She jumped up from the bed and started pacing back and forth, up and down the Persian runner that was worn nearly white in the middle from all the times she had paced it before. This was an attractive room, spacious and well designed, but it had the comfortably shabby air of a place whose inhabitants had long ago stopped seeing it.
“What did his voice sound like?” she asked. “Was he nervous? Was he upset?”
“He was fine.”
“So you say. Had he been drinking, do you think?”
“I couldn’t tell.”
“Were other people with him?”
“I couldn’t tell, Abby.”
“Or maybe . . . one other person?”
He sent her a sharp look. “You are not thinking he was serious,” he said.
“Of course he was serious! Why else would he say it?”
“The boy isn’t gay, Abby.”
“How do you know that?”
“He just isn’t. Mark my words. You’re going to feel silly, by and by, like, ‘Shoot, I overreacted.’ ”
“Well, naturally that is what you would want to believe.”
“Doesn’t your female intuition tell you anything at all? This is a kid who got a girl in trouble before he was out of high school!”
“So? That doesn’t mean a thing. It might even have been a symptom.”
“We can never know with absolute certainty what another person’s sex life is like.”
“No, thank God,” Red said.
He bent over, with a grunt, and reached beneath the bed for his slippers. Abby, meanwhile, had stopped pacing and was staring once more at the phone. She set a hand on the receiver. She hesitated. Then she snatched up the receiver and pressed it to her ear for half a second before slamming it back down.
“The thing about caller ID is,” Red said, more or less to himself, “it seems a little like cheating. A person should be willing to take his chances, answering the phone. That’s kind of the general idea with phones, is my opinion.”
He heaved himself to his feet and started toward the bathroom. Behind him, Abby said, “This would explain so much! Wouldn’t it? If he should turn out to be gay.”
Red was closing the bathroom door by then, but he poked his head back out to glare at her. His fine black eyebrows, normally straight as rulers, were knotted almost together. “Sometimes,” he said, “I rue and deplore the day I married a social worker.”
Then he shut the door very firmly.
When he returned, Abby was sitting upright in bed with her arms clamped across the lace bosom of her nightgown. “You are surely not going to try and blame Denny’s problems on my profession,” she told him.
“I’m just saying a person can be too understanding,” he said. “Too sympathizing and pitying, like. Getting into a kid’s private brain.”
“There is no such thing as ‘too understanding.’ ”
“Well, count on a social worker to think that.”
She gave an exasperated puff of a breath, and then she sent another glance toward the phone. It was on Red’s side of the bed, not hers. Red raised the covers and got in, blocking her view. He reached over and snapped off the lamp on the nightstand. The room fell into darkness, with just a faint glow from the two tall, gauzy windows overlooking the front lawn.
Red was lying flat now, but Abby went on sitting up. She said, “Do you think he’ll call us back?”
“Oh, yes. Sooner or later.”
“It took all his courage to call the first time,” she said. “Maybe he used up every bit he had.”
“Courage! What courage? We’re his parents! Why would he need courage to call his own parents?”
“It’s you he needs it for,” Abby said.
“That’s ridiculous. I’ve never raised a hand to him.”
“No, but you disapprove of him. You’re always finding fault with him. With the girls you’re such a softie, and then Stem is more your kind of person. While Denny! Things come harder to Denny. Sometimes I think you don’t like him.”
“Abby, for God’s sake. You know that’s not true.”
Oh, you love him, all right. But I’ve seen the way you look at him—‘Who is this person?’—and don’t you think for a moment that he hasn’t seen it too.”
“If that’s the case,” Red said, “how come it’s you he’s always trying to get away from?”
“He’s not trying to get away from me!”
“From the time he was five or six years old, he wouldn’t let you into his room. Kid preferred to change his own sheets rather than let you in to do it for him! Hardly ever brought his friends home, wouldn’t say what their names were, wouldn’t even tell you what he did in school all day. ‘Get out of my life, Mom,’ he was saying. ‘Stop meddling, stop prying, stop breathing down my neck.’ His least favorite picture book—the one he hated so much he tore out all the pages, remember?—had that baby rabbit that wants to change into a fish and a cloud and such so he can get away, and the mama rabbit keeps saying how she will change too and come after him. Denny ripped out every single everlasting page!”
“That had nothing to do with—”
“You wonder why he’s turned gay? Not that he has turned gay, but if he had, if it’s crossed his mind just to bug us with that, you want to know why? I’ll tell you why: it’s the mother. It is always the smothering mother.”
“Oh!” Abby said. “That is just so outdated and benighted and so . . . wrong, I’m not even going to dignify it with an answer.”
“You’re certainly using a lot of words to tell me so.”
“And how about the father, if you want to go back to the Dark Ages for your theories? How about the macho, construction-guy father who tells his son to buck up, show some spunk, quit whining about the small stuff, climb the darn roof and hammer the slates in?”
“You don’t hammer slates in, Abby.”
“How about him?” she asked.
“Okay, fine! I did that. I was the world’s worst parent. It’s done.”
There was a moment of quiet. The only sound came from outside—the whisper of a car slipping past.
“I didn’t say you were the worst,” Abby said.
“Well,” Red said.
Another moment of quiet.
Abby asked, “Isn’t there a number you can punch that will dial the last person who called?”
“Star sixty-nine,” Red said instantly. He cleared his throat. “But you are surely not going to do that.”
“Denny was the one who chose to end the conversation, might I point out.”
“His feelings were hurt, was why,” Abby said.
“If his feelings were hurt, he’d have taken his time hanging up. He wouldn’t have been so quick to cut me off. But he hung up like he was just waiting to hang up. Oh, he was practically rubbing his hands together, giving me that news! He starts right in. ‘I’d like to tell you something,’ he says.”
“Before, you said it was ‘I need to tell you something.’ ”
“Well, one or the other,” Red said.
“Which was it?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, it matters.”
He thought a moment. Then he tried it out under his breath. “ ‘I need to tell you something,’ ” he tried. “ ‘I’d like to tell you something.’ ‘Dad, I’d like to—’ ” He broke off. “I honestly don’t remember,” he said.
“Could you dial star sixty-nine, please?”
“I can’t figure out his reasoning. He knows I’m not anti-gay. I’ve got a gay guy in charge of our drywall, for Lord’s
sake. Denny knows that. I can’t figure out why he thought this would bug me. I mean, of course I’m not going to
be thrilled. You always want your kid to have it as easy in life as he can. But—”
“Hand me the phone,” Abby said.
The phone rang.
Red grabbed the receiver at the very same instant that Abby flung herself across him to grab it herself. He had it first, but there was a little tussle and somehow she was the one who ended up with it. She sat up straight and said, “Denny?”
Then she said, “Oh. Jeannie.”
Red lay flat again.
“No, no, we’re not in bed yet,” she said. There was a pause. “Certainly. What’s wrong with yours?” Another pause. “It’s no trouble at all. I’ll see you at eight tomorrow. Bye.”
She held the receiver toward Red, and he took it from her and reached over to replace it in its cradle.
“She wants to borrow my car,” she told him. She sank back onto her side of the bed.
Then she said, in a thin, lonesome-sounding voice, “I guess star sixty-nine won’t work now, will it.”
“No,” Red said, “I guess not.”
“Oh, Red. Oh, what are we going to do? We’ll never, ever hear from him again! He’s not going to give us another chance!”
“Now, hon,” he told her. “We’ll hear from him. I promise.” And he reached for her and drew her close, settling her head on his shoulder.
They lay like that for some time, until gradually Abby stopped fidgeting and her breaths grew slow and even. Red, though, went on staring up into the dark. At one point, he mouthed some words to himself in an experimental way. “ ‘. . . need to tell you something,’ ” he mouthed, not even quite whispering it. Then, “ ‘. . . like to tell you something.’ ” Then, “ ‘Dad, I’d like to . . .’ ‘Dad, I need to . . .’ ” He tossed his head impatiently on his pillow. He started over. “ ‘. . . tell you something: I’m gay.’ ‘. . . tell you something: I think I’m gay.’ ‘I’m gay.’ ‘I think I’m gay.’ ‘I think I may be gay.’ ‘I’m gay.’ ”
But eventually he grew silent, and at last he fell asleep too.
Well, of course they did hear from him again. The Whitshanks weren’t a melodramatic family. Not even Denny was the type to disappear off the face of the earth, or sever all contact, or stop speaking—or not permanently, at least. It was true that he skipped the beach trip that summer, but he might have skipped it anyhow; he had to make his pocket money for the following school year. (He was attending St. Eskil College, in Pronghorn, Minnesota.) And he did telephone in September. He needed money for textbooks, he said. Unfortunately, Red was the only one home at the time, so it wasn’t a very revealing conversation. “What did you talk about?” Abby demanded, and Red said, “I told him his textbooks had to come out of his earnings.”
“I mean, did you talk about that last phone call? Did you apologize? Did you explain? Did you ask him any questions?”
“We didn’t really get into it.”
“Red!” Abby said. “This is classic! This is such a classic reaction: a young person announces he’s gay and his family just carries on like before, pretending they didn’t hear.”
“Well, fine,” Red said. “Call him back. Get in touch with his dorm.”
Abby looked uncertain. “What reason should I give him for calling?” she asked.
“Say you want to grill him.”
“I’ll just wait till he phones again,” she decided.
But when he phoned again—which he did a month or so later, when Abby was there to answer—it was to talk about his plane reservations for Christmas vacation. He wanted to change his arrival date, because first he was going to Hibbing to visit his girlfriend. His girlfriend! “What could I say?” Abby asked Red later. “I had to say, ‘Okay, fine.’ ”
“What could you say,” Red agreed.
He didn’t refer to the subject again, but Abby herself sort of simmered and percolated all those weeks before Christmas. You could tell she was just itching to get things out in the open. The rest of the family edged around her warily. They knew nothing about the gay announcement—Red and Abby had concurred on that much, not to tell them without Denny’s say-so—but they could sense that something was up.
It was Abby’s plan (though not Red’s) to sit Denny down and have a nice heart-to-heart as soon as he got home. But on the morning of the day that his plane was due in, they had a letter from St. Eskil reminding them of the terms of their contract: the Whitshanks would be responsible for the next semester’s tuition even though
Denny had withdrawn.
“‘Withdrawn,’ ” Abby repeated. She was the one who had opened the letter, although both of them were reading it. The slow, considering way she spoke brought out all the word’s ramifications. Denny had withdrawn; he was withdrawn; he had withdrawn from the family years ago. What other middle-class American teenager lived the way he did—flitting around the country like a vagrant, completely out of his parents’ control, getting in touch just sporadically and neglecting whenever possible to give them any means of getting in touch with him? How had things come to such a pass? They certainly hadn’t allowed the other children to behave this way. Red and Abby looked at each other for a long, despairing moment.
Understandably, therefore, the subject that dominated Christmas that year was Denny’s leaving school. (He had decided school was a waste of money, was all he had to say, since he didn’t have the least idea what he wanted to do in life. Maybe in a year or two, he said.) His gayness, or his non-gayness, just seemed to get lost in the shuffle.
“I can almost see now why some families pretend they weren’t told,” Abby said after the holidays.
“Mm-hmm,” Red said, poker-faced. --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
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The novel veers back and forth in time over the family's ages. We get the backstory of Red's parents and how they overcame a scandal and the Depression to come to Baltimore from the hill country to carve out a living. We learn how Abby and Red fell in love. We learn that even with decades of marriage, there are still secrets in the family that threaten its stability as they are revealed. We also learn about the fourth generation of Whitshanks who are Red and Abby's grandchildren.
Anne Tyler is a recognized master at character development. Almost all of her books are set in Baltimore and most unravel the complexities of family life and the relationships that both sustain and threaten us. We see how families react to various events, how they are formed and what pressures can split them apart. A Spool Of Blue Thread was a Man Booker nominee as well as an Orange Prize nominee. This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction and those interested in families and their relationships.
Top international reviews
And then, just as we've come to know them all, chuck in a horrible accident and then whizz back 50-60 years to tell us how Abby and Red got together. Then just as you're getting used to that, whizz back a couple more decades and introduce Red's parents, Junior and Linnie Mae (surely the most irritating character in any book for many a year). I found it really irritating.
Had Taylor simply stuck to the tail of Abby and Red and their children, there's a nice story in here. Maybe if she'd throw in the 'how they met' as part of the main story that might also have worked. But Junior and Linnie Mae were just a step TOO far. As for the 'end' when it finally came, it was really not much of an ending at all.
It's been said that nobody writes families better than Anne Tyler. Sadly this one just gave me the sense that she got lost somewhere along the way. As others have said, it really did 'unravel' - and there was no particular reason for it to be called 'A Spool of Blue Thread' as nothing really sewed this together.
How does what is, essentially, a very normal family, and a normal life make such compelling reading? A Spool of Blue Thread explores the Whitshank family, starting with the matriarch, Abby. A very ordinary day with her four children, husband and assorted grandchildren on the porch, as she smiles through the much told story of how she and Red met. Time passes, and Abby and Red begin to age, in the normal, run of the mill way, that people do. The ordinary horror of how her children deal with this, how they can move from the house so meticulously built by Red's father, is fleshed out in a lot of detail, with tit bits emerging from their childhood, and old rivalries resurfacing. We learn about Abby and Red's parents, their childhoods. We learn the ins and outs, the celebrations, remorse, and closely kept secrets of the Whitshank family, and this novel is un-put-downable. It is the first time in a long while that I have had to slow myself down whilst reading because I couldn't bear to reach the end.
So, again I ask: how does something so banal make compelling reading? It is Tyler's genius. The telling details, the humour, the tiny glances and hand gestures that leave you craving her writing. Starting the novel and only a few pages in, I felt a sort of relaxed state come over me: I was in good hands. I trusted Tyler to take me wherever she was going, and I knew what followed would be nothing but brilliant.
An exemplary book: my winner for The Man Booker.
I'm not going to say much more. This is beautifully written (of course) full of under-stated humour and gentle irony. It's twisty and turny in a gentle way, and the characters are multi-faceted, and so unbelievably real. The narrative jumps about a bit, and that's one of the very few things I wasn't so keen on. And though less is more, I know that, still I wanted more - in particular on Denny.
This isn't her absolute best, though I'm measuring her against an incredibly high standard. If you've never read any Anne Tyler before, start with The Accidental Tourist or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. But it is classic Anne Tyler, and I am already looking forward to her next, while looking her back catalogue out at the same time.
So much happens or is revealed in the first half of the book that I wondered how the author would fill the second half. The answer, when it came, was rather disappointing. She takes us back to the beginning of Red and Abby's relationship and then does the same with Red's parents. None of this is particularly interesting and it didn't, for me at least, shed any light on why Abby made her two momentous decisions. I have long loved Anne Tyler's writing and I hope that isn't her last novel, as she has said, because it's a long way from being her best.
I like a book with a good strong plot, but at first sight, there’s not much of a plot in this book, because Ann Tyler’s writing about life - and that life is probably very familiar. Problems with the elderly - deafness, dementia; problems with the family - sibling rivalries; marital disharmony, misfits. They’re all there, and they all come tumbling out in no particular order.
The thread that holds them together is the house built by Junior Whitshank for someone else before eventually owning it himself and passed on to his son and daughter in law, Red and Abby. Strangely enough in the obsession with the house, the the misfit brother, I was half reminded of a book by Lionel Shriver.
It takes time before some of the carefully planted clues to relationships come out, revealing a bit of a plot. What is perhaps more interesting is the way that your opinion of various characters changes, as you see them from a different perspective. Those that might have seemed awful show a side of themselves that makes you feel sympathetic to their plight.
There was rather a clunky change from one generation's story to another, when we leave Abby, the main character, to find out the back story of her parents in law.
You don’t have to work hard at an Anne Tyler novel. They’re literary fiction, but they don’t feel like it. I had no problem reading this in three or four days (evenings only.) But it was not memorable, and some of the reviews on the inside cover seemed over the top. I’d probably give it 7 out of 10.
I really enjoyed this story, I enjoyed getting to know the characters and I was reminded that old people haven't always been old, they've lived a life and deserve our respect. The action is very much based around Abby and Red's house which Red's father built, this house really is the heart of the family and I loved hearing the stories associated with each part of the house.
Families are complicated and the more I read, the more I discovered, I always felt there was something else to learn about the characters so this novel didn't have that boring part in the middle between the introductions and the twist. I struggled to understand the significance of the blue thread in the title, it's not mentioned until nearly the end. To me, it symbolised forgiveness and secrets, linking weddings and funerals. Which is a lovely way to remind us that life goes on, children will always grow up and parents will always get old and pass on.
This is the second book I read of the Man Booker finalists this year, it's a gentler story than A Little Life (and a lot shorter) but just as good.
Unfortunately, nothing much seems to have changed in the intervening years..
She does write beautifully and there is certainly not much wrong with her style but the content is very strange
Killing off the main female protagonist just over hal way through the book was such an odd thing to do and certaily disrupted the flow - felt that there must be a good reason to do this and there might be a dramatic twist but no such luck. The whole family are pretty dire and the themes that threaten to emerge on occasions were not develped properly or were too subtle for me and went over my head
tried hard to like tis book better and find more 'messages' but , at the end. was jolly glad not to have to read anymore about that blessed house and the swing on the porch...
If Abby is the most delightful character, Denny is the most intriguing, and if we have met versions of them before, here their faults seem as striking as their virtues. The blue thread binds them.
Three-quarters or more of this is vintage Tyler, and the novel should have ended there, but there's an unwise and rather irrelevant, saga-ish flashback to an earlier generation, and it's very noticeable that she is much stronger post 1950 than pre-1950.
Still, it can't be the last from her. We must have more.
There's so much more to this moving novel than a mere comedy of manners, and so much depth to the main characters that at moments their very soul is revealed.
Before I make a final point I should say that my reviews are generally restrained and I do not go in for gushing. Here though I make an exception and say this is not a good or great book, it's perfect.