Anne Tyler

A Spool Of Blue Thread

  • 47-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 14 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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A Spool Of Blue Thread Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 47-page guide for “A Spool Of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 14 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Keeping Up Appearances and The Ghosts of Our Past.

A Spool of Blue Thread was published in 2015 and is the twentieth novel by American author Anne Tyler. The novel falls under the subgenre of Women’s Fiction. A Spool of Blue Thread received mixed reviews by critics upon publication but fared far better with the general public. After its commercial success, it was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, as well as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Plot Summary 

A Spool of Blue Thread chronicles the lives of the Whitshanks, a Baltimore family close-knit to the point of clannishness. The Whitshanks tout closeness as an endearing family trait, along with patience, but the opening pages undermine both these “virtues.” When Abby and Red Whitshanks’ estranged son, Denny, calls them one night and proclaims that he’s gay, Red’s annoyance with his contrarian son sets the stage for the rest of the narrative. Abby and Red, and their other children to a lesser extent, wonder when Denny might grace the family again with his presence. When Abby and Red, both in their 70s, begin exhibiting signs of old age, their children must decide their fate. Daughters Amanda and Jeannie—along with their brother Stem, and later Denny—wrestle with how to extricate their parents from the house on Bouton Road that has served as the family’s heart and soul for generations.

When Abby begins exhibiting signs of dementia and Red’s hearing woes increase, the children initiate an unintentional tug-of-war between various family members. When Stem moves into the family house with his wife, Nora, and their three young boys, Denny, annoyed at not being asked, returns home as well. Meanwhile, Nora and Abby silently struggle for the role of matriarch, while everyone suffers from Red’s refusal to wear his hearing aids. As the family unit crumbles, so too does the house that Red has previously cared for like his own child. The fate of the house is interwoven with the family’s fate, and with all her kids back home, Abby feels the precariousness of their individual lives despite having wanted everyone under one roof.

In an attempt to reestablish her individualism, Abby takes the dog—whom she calls by her previous, deceased dog’s name—for a walk, with tragic consequences. Both Abby and the dog are killed, and the remaining family members are left reeling from an absence that used to grate on them in life with its overbearing presence. Abby’s kids have always thought her overprotective, and even Red found her eccentric at times. Despite this, her death unhinges what little of the family is held together. When Red has a heart attack, and then suffers from minor discomfort that causes him to seek medical help, his children are once again left to figure out the house situation. Before they can, however, Red announces something they never thought they’d hear: He’s moving into a small apartment. The house, therefore, will sell, and the Whitshanks can finally stop worrying about the house’s upkeep—and by extension, Red’s care.

As the Whitshanks prepare the house for the market, ghosts of the past resurface in a variety of ways. Denny receives what he believes is a visit from Abby beyond the grave, where she speculates on forgiveness via a spool of blue thread. The narrative also includes the history of the family’s patriarch, Junior Whitshank, in the last few chapters, resulting in stories that shape the Whitshanks’ history in comical, criminal, and cringeworthy ways. Junior and his wife, Linnie Mae Whitshank, add colorful context to the novel’s themes of secrets, keeping up appearances, storytelling, and loss. These stories contrast sharply with the two main family stories—and virtues—the Whitshanks proffer, suggesting that traits like patience and steadfastness might appear on the surface of things, but they equate to something far darker, and far more human, below the carefully curated surface.

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