In brief: The story of the Whitshanks, a family who don’t think they have any skeletons to hide, but time with the family reveals they are just as dysfunctional as the rest of us.
The good: It’s a wonderfully interesting book – sad, funny, happy and sweet.
The not-so-good: It finished!
Why I chose it: On the shortlist for this year’s Baileys Prize.
Duration: 13 hours 18 minutes (book is 368 pages)
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Publisher: Random House
Setting: America (primarily Baltimore)
My rating: 10 out of 10
I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but although this is my first Anne Tyler book, it definitely won’t be the last. Two things enticed me to read A Spool of Blue Thread – the gorgeous cover and the fact that it was longlisted (and now shortlisted) for the Baileys Prize. I think I need to thank the Baileys Prize for such a stunning longlist this year, as it’s been the best ever for me in terms of finding new authors that I adore.
I listened to A Spool of Blue Thread in the car and it almost had me hoping I’d end up in a traffic jam so I could listen to more. The story is so good that I just wanted to devour the whole thing (perhaps binge listen is the right term). Kimberly Farr’s narration is spot on and I’m always impressed by narrators that can produce different nuances of speech for each character. She is Abby, Red, Junior, Stem, Denny and Nora. My only critique of the audiobook is that I don’t know how some of the characters’ names are spelled – is it Linney Mae or Linnie Mae? Jeanie or Jeannie? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Anne Tyler has taken one family with its own quirks and skeleton (no matter how much they try to hide them) and created a wonderful story over three generations of the Whitshank family that is never dull. It’s comical, sad, thought provoking and downright crazy at times, but it shows the love that the family have for each other.
Of course, no family is perfect (even though Junior, Red’s father, did try to build the perfect house). The story opens as Red and Abby, now elderly, get a phone call from black sheep son Denny. He says he’s gay – maybe. The family aren’t sure if they’ve heard correctly. Denny’s an enigma to the rest of the open Whitshanks – he doesn’t live nearby, doesn’t have a steady job (they think) and doesn’t really partake in family gatherings wholeheartedly. The Whitshanks are pretty damn hot in their own eyes – it’s not flaunted, but the family are secure in their love for each other. But it’s not as simple as that. There’s Stem, who was taken in as an orphan and his wife Nora, who the family see as a bit different. But daughters Jeannie and Amanda have their own issues with their Hughs (love that Anne Tyler took what happens so commonly in real families, that two people have the same name) and Denny’s life isn’t that straightforward. But now Abby and Red are getting old – Abby’s memory isn’t too good and Red is getting frail. Will the family bond over this?
We also learn more about the previous generation of Whitshanks – Junior and Linnie Mae. How did Junior go about acquiring such a grand house in Baltimore? How did he and Linnie Mae meet?: How did Red and Abby meet? It’s a wonderful journey across the generations proving that no family is ever straightforward or boring. And as for the Whitshank house…it sounds amazing. (How dare that real estate agent complain so much?) It was built with love and an aim for perfection, just like the family.
Anne Tyler’s prose is wonderful, enveloping and warm. She tells simple things so well, with honesty and an eye for the detail of families – long buried grudges, adult siblings that can still bicker and the bonding that occurs during hard times. This is a wonderful read and I’m crossing my fingers it wins the Baileys Prize this year.