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Book Club Kits: A Spool of Blue Thread

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Book Summary

From the beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning author--now in the fiftieth year of her remarkable career--a brilliantly observed, joyful and wrenching, funny and true new novel that reveals, as only she can, the very nature of a family's life. "It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon." This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The whole family--their two daughters and two sons, their grandchildren, even their faithful old dog--is on the porch, listening contentedly as Abby tells the tale they have heard so many times before. And yet this gathering is different too: Abby and Red are growing older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them, and the fate of the house so lovingly built by Red's father. Brimming with the luminous insight, humor, and compassion that are Anne Tyler's hallmarks, this capacious novel takes us across three generations of the Whitshanks, their shared stories and long-held secrets, all the unguarded and richly lived moments that combine to define who and what they are as a family.

Read an excerpt.

Discussion Questions

1. What are the main themes of the novel? Which did you find most thought-provoking?

2. The novel opens and closes with Denny. Do you think he’s the main character? If not, who is?

3. We don’t learn the full significance of the title until nearly (on page 350). How did this delay make the metaphor more powerful? What is the metaphor?

4. On page 10, Tyler writes, “Well, of course they did hear from him again. The Whitshanks weren’t a melodramatic family.” What type of family are they? Compare the way you see them with the way they see themselves.

5. Chapter 2 begins with the Whitshank family stories: “These stories were viewed as quintessential—as defining, in some way—and every family member, including Stem’s three-year-old, had heard them told and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times.” (page 40) Why are these two stories so important? Why is the story of Red’s sister important to Red’s family?

6. “Patience, in fact, was what the Whitshanks imagined to be the theme of their two stories—patiently lying in wait for what they believed should come to them.” (page 57) Others might say it was envy or disappointment. Which interpretation makes the most sense to you? Can you think of another linking theme?

7. How does Abby’s story about the day she fell in love with Red fit into the Whitshank family history? Why isn’t it one of the family’s two defining stories?

8. Much is made of Abby’s “orphans,” which we learn also include Stem. What does her welcoming of strangers into her home say about her character? How do the others’ responses set up a subtle contrast?

9. Discuss the character Denny. Why is he so resentful of Stem? Why is he so secretive about his life?

10. Do Red and Abby have favorite children and grandchildren? Who do you think each one favors? 

11. On page 151, Tyler writes about Abby: “She had always assumed that when she was old, she would have total confidence, finally. But look at her: still uncertain.” Do you think Abby’s family sees her as uncertain or lacking in confidence? Why?

12. Abby dies suddenly in an accident, just like Red’s parents did. When it came to his parents, “Red was of the opinion that instantaneous death was a mercy…” (page 153) Do you think he felt the same way after Abby’s death?

13. Why didn’t Abby tell Red about Stem’s mother? Why didn’t Denny tell Stem? And why, after they learn the truth, does Stem make Red and Denny promise not to tell anyone else?

14. At Abby’s funeral, Reverend Alban speculates that heaven may be “a vast consciousness that the dead return to,” bringing their memories with them. (page 189) What do you think of his theory? What do you imagine Abby would say about it?

15. Why did Red’s pausing to count the rings on the felled poplar make Abby fall in love with him?

16. The novel isn’t structured chronologically. How does Tyler use shifts in time to reveal character and change the reader’s perception?

17. What is the significance of the porch swing? What does it tell us about Linnie Mae and Junior?

18. After reading their story, how did your opinion of Linnie Mae change?

19. The Whitshank house, built by Junior and maintained by Red, is practically a character in the novel. What does it mean to the Whitshank family? Why, in the end, does it seem easy for Red to leave?

20. On the train at the end of the novel, Denny sits next to a teenage boy who cries quietly. What is the significance of this scene?

Interview with Author

How would you describe A Spool of Blue Thread?

It's a novel that begins in 2012 and travels backward to the 1920s, gradually uncovering the origins of a middle-class Baltimore family that prides itself on its "specialness."

Where did the idea for the novel come from?

My so-called baby brother, now in his sixties, has maintained all his life that he was warped by a traumatic experience from when he was four: Our mother told him he could come shopping with her after his nap, but when he woke from his nap he found she had left without him. "It was a beautiful, sunny, spring afternoon . . ." he begins his saga, in tragic tones, at any opportunity forever after. Isn't it interesting how every person - and every family - has just one or two stories that are defining stories, lovingly preserved while others are discarded? That thought was what started me thinking about the Whitshanks's stories.

You once said 'I don't have murder mysteries, suspense or real events. I rely on time to do my plotting: people having babies, marrying, dying, just normal things that happen.' What draws you to writing about family life? And what fascinates you about the normal?

Families are stuck with each other, for the most part. They can't just give up and walk out as easily as mere friends and acquaintances can, so they afford writers a prime chance to study them at length to find out how they grate along together. As for the "normal": I have always been fascinated by how human beings manage to keep on keeping on, even when they know tomorrow is unlikely to be any different from today.

Does writing your twentieth novel feel any different from writing your first?

It's a less anxious process, for the most part. I've learned to relax and trust the story to come as it will.

Do you have a favourite and if so will you tell us?

That used to be an easy question to answer: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Nowadays I hesitate, though, because A Spool of Blue Thread seems to be edging it out in my affections. But I'll have to wait a while to see whether that's just a case of my being fondest of the newest baby.

What are you reading at the moment?

I'm reading Heather O'Neill's The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. This is the second time in two weeks I've read it, because I loved it so much the first time. She has to be, hands down, the world's best constructor of similes; they are so unexpected and yet so apt that they make me laugh out loud.