A Spool of Blue Thread

Tyler, Anne

It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon. . .

This is how Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate togetherness: an indefinable, enviable kind of specialness. But they are also like all families, in that the stories they tell themselves reveal only part of the picture.

Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets. From Red’s father and mother, newly arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red’s grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century, here are four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their anchor.

Brimming with all the insight, humor, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of Anne Tyler’s work, A Spool of Blue Thread tells a poignant yet unsentimental story in praise of family in all its emotional complexity. It is a novel to cherish. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

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 melodramaticfamily." 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?

(Questions issued by the publisher.)