I am one of those curious people who wonders about the meaning of a book title, especially when it is vague. And, although the phrase “a spool of blue thread” doesn’t appear until the very end of the book, I must admit–I’m still wondering. (Forgiveness? Longevity? An unending series of life and death?)
The Goodreads reviews on A Spool of Blue Thread are extremely mixed. That doesn’t surprise me at all. There is no doubt that Anne Tyler is a terrific writer, skilled at mapping out the human condition and little details we all absorb but rarely discuss. Some will find great depth in this book’s pages, others will see it as a story that goes on and on with no real point or climax. I lean toward the latter.
Until the “semi” explanation of the title manifested itself, my impatience kicked in and I began tapping into my Humanities degree, where symbolism was a favorite subtopic. The story, like a spool of thread, is linear at first. But, as time goes on–like the spool unwinding more and more– it begins to zig zag back and forth, losing it’s initial direction and original purpose.
Through it all we follow multiple generations of the Whitshank family. The first and second generations are only described in depth after three members are dead and buried, which felt like an unnatural backpedaling to this reader. I suppose the point–if there is one–is to show that even as families change and people grow up, everyone ultimately begins and ends at the same place. We’re all children dependent on our parents, teens who rebel on some level, young adults carving our niche in the world, and older adults wondering where it all went before quietly leaving this earth. Our only artifacts being people’s memories of us and a collection of belongings to be sold, donated, or, if we’re lucky, lovingly treasured. It’s a cynical cycle, but an honest one.
A reader who is content with this type of horizontal plot packaged in very capable writing will enjoy the book. A reader looking for an engaging, memorable story will not. At best, we will all recognize someone in the Whitshank family as a person we know or to whom we are related. Perhaps even ourselves. As a reader, however, I did not find myself rooting for any particular character and am ready to move on.