Book Review: A Spool Of Blue Thread

a spool of blue thread book cover

Reading Anne Tyler With Your Dog…or Cat

Anne Tyler is the author of some twenty novels, the latest of which is entitled A Spool of Blue Thread. A few of her novels, including The Accidental Tourist, have been made into movies. Tyler’s work will not have you sitting on the edge of your seat; she’s not that kind of writer. More likely, her work will have you lying back in your favorite armchair, relaxed but engaged, with your pup snoring or your kitty purring on your lap, savoring every word.

Anne Tyler has several trademarks. First of all, all of her books take place in Baltimore; it’s hard to remember the details of each one since her first book came out in 60s, but I seem to recall that most of the action unfolds in the Roland Park area of that great city. Often the old houses her characters live in seem as alive as the characters themselves. Her writing is gentle. You can tell she loves her characters. To my recollection there have been no real “bad guys” in her work. There are only people, ordinary people, people who share their secrets, and people who opt not to; people who seem to get it right all the time, and people who stumble and fall and need a helping hand. Mostly she writes about relationships in families, the little arguments that ultimately bring about change, the small concerns that motivate people to action.


anne tyler author

the accidental tourist book cover

Some years back, after several of her novels were published close together, a couple of reviewers began to criticize her for being too “sweet” and for having characters that were too “uniformly quirky.” That upset me a bit. Must we always have books and movies with car chases and vulgar men waiting to beat up on other vulgar men? Yes, her characters are quirky, but certainly not in a uniform way. They are as quirky as you or me, as any of us, each in our own way. In her genius, Anne Tyler is able to create characters so real we might think we would recognize them on the street. Certainly we recognize their likenesses in our own family and friend circles. And sweet? Though I like a good mystery as much as anyone, sweet, especially in Tyler’s hands, is a welcome diversion.

It’s been a couple of years now between her last book and her newest one. Maybe the gap in time has softened the critics, or maybe now that we live in what many people have come to call “the age of distraction,” the critics can see the value in her persistent downhome charm. Either way, reviewers (and readers) are loving A Spool of Blue Thread. No one seems to be giving her any flak at all.

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A Spool of Blue Thread is about the Whitshank family. In the course of the story readers learn about three different generations of Whitshanks, but the main focus is on Abby Whitshank: wife and mother of four. Later in the book we get a glimpse of the younger Abby, but in the opening chapters the Abby we come to know (and yes, love) is in her early seventies. She is a retired social worker, but she is still on a mission to make the world a better place in any way she can. One of her immediate concerns is that she seems to be having memory lapses now and then; time just gets away from her. Her other concern is her son Denny, the black sheep in the family, the one who can’t seem to keep a job, who forgets to be in touch, who doesn’t share details about his life when he does get in touch, who seems not to care about the lives of the other family members. The ways in which she and her grown children react to her affliction and to Denny’s shortcomings will come to define the family and set the plot in motion.

woman with book and cat

So where, you might well ask, are the pets?

Abby and her family have two dogs in the book, one when Abby’s kids are young and one as she gets older. One of the indicators of Abby’s cognitive weaknesses is that the older Abby, the one we meet first (and really the one who dominates the story), calls her dog Clarence, even though Clarence is the name of the previous dog, a black lab who died of old age years before. The new dog is Brenda, a golden retriever, and unlike Clarence, she is of course female, but Abby can’t seem to remember that. When people correct her for addressing Brenda as Clarence, she pretty much ignores them or tells them they are mistaken.

You could say the dogs are a device in the book, and in some sense they are. They symbolize the division between youth and old age. They provide evidence that Abby is suffering some kind of break with reality in her latter years. In once chapter, the younger Abby uses the excuse that she needs help getting Clarence to the vet to get her son Denny into the car so that she can drop him off at the office of a psychologist who she thinks can help him. So yes, the dogs are a device. And in fact, ultimately it is Abby’s inability to know which dog she is walking that brings about the most significant changes in the book, for all of the characters. But on the other hand, Anne Tyler’s characters are not the kind of people who would choose to go through life without pets. They are animal lovers, one and all. We expect to find dogs and cats in her stories, just as we expect to find them in the homes of certain people. And for that reason alone, Anne Tyler is a writer that “Your Pet Space” readers may want to know more about.

Joan Schweighardt

Joan Schweighardt, our Literary Editor, is a freelance writer working for both private and corporate clients. She is also a five-time published novelist. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband and her dog.

Encountering Dogs In Life and Literature


The author’s dog, Roy–with some yogurt on his nose!

The other day I had an appointment to meet with two directors who oversee social services for homeless communities. I am writing a novel about a homeless man, and I had contacted one of the two women to ask if she could spare an hour to go over a few details with me. We made an appointment, via email, for me to come to her home office, but she let me know in advance that she and her associate were incredibly busy, meaning, no doubt, there would be no room for idle chit-chat beyond my prepared questions.

I wasn’t exactly nervous driving over, but I always feel myself becoming somewhat “reserved” when I am meeting people for the first time, especially in a business setting. So when I rang the doorbell and the door opened and a scruffy little pup ran out and began to dance around my feet, I was enthralled. The ice cracked then and there. The dog’s name was Lucky. As the woman led me to her office, she explained that she’d rescued the dog, so he was lucky, but then so was she: luck all around. As if he knew that we wouldn’t have much more opportunity to talk about him once I sat down, Lucky jumped onto my lap, and he stayed there until the other two women and I were well into our conversation. I felt lucky too.

It’s always a treat for me to walk into a room for the first time and find a friendly dog (or two or three or more) waiting there to greet me. Well behaved or not, a wagging tail and lolling tongue can do a lot to put a stranger at ease. For dog lovers at least, encountering dogs in homes (or offices) informs them immediately that they have something in common with the humans in the scenario. Right away they can presume that these new humans are more laid back, less likely to worry about absolute cleanliness, less inclined to be outraged by a little barking, a cookie stolen from the kitchen counter, a favorite slipper chewed to smithereens. Let’s face it: Dogs are chaos, and some of us thrive in chaotic settings.

travels with lizbeth cover

The sensations that engulf me (pleasure, warmth, familiarity) when I meet a dog in the flesh are only slightly more intense than those I experience when I turn a page in a book and find a dog panting there. One of my all time favorite books, for instance, is a memoir called Travels with Lisbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets, by Lars Eighner, published in the ’90s. This is a remarkable story about the adventures of a homeless man who has lost everything else but relishes in the companionship of his dog, the Lisbeth of the title. The scene where she is taken away from him, for biting someone, is heart-wrenching. So as not to be a spoiler I won’t say how it is resolved (but rest assured, it is resolved).

Want To Read About a Highly Intelligent and Loving Dog?

Another favorite book about dogs, a novel published in 2009, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Edgar, a child who is mute, is watched over by a highly intelligent and loving dog named Almondine. Edgar’s family raises dogs, so there are lots of dogs in this extremely well-written story, and if you love dogs, you will never want the book to end—certainly not the way it does.

These are two examples of books that are as much about dogs as they are about people. There are also, of course, plenty of books told from a dog’s point of view. Realist that I am, I don’t read this latter genre, though I know from fellow readers that there are many worthy titles within it. I tend to choose books, mainly novels, that explore the human condition or investigate mysteries that I have given thought to myself. Sometimes I will choose a book because someone whose reading tastes are similar to mine has told me it is extremely clever, or incredibly well written, or it has really snappy dialogue, etc. I don’t buy books because I expect to find dogs in them. But just as I am happy when I encounter a dog in real life, I’m happy to find them in the books I read too.

The Accidental Art Thief

Joan’s book, being released in May, 2015.

What a Really Old Dog Can Show About Character

I’m not talking about “dogs barking in the distance,” which seems to go on in lots of books. I’m talking about dogs that have names, personalities, dogs who carry on in the background while the human characters are working out their grievances at center stage, dogs who even work their way into the plot on occasion. Who can forget the really old dog sleeping on the porch in Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men? When politician Willie Stark requires a humanizing photo in front of his family home, his men drag the sleeping dog into the right position, over by the rocking chair if I remember correctly. The gesture is so callus—and it tells us so much about the characters on hand in that moment. And who can forget the dog in Carolyn Parkhurt’s The Dogs of Babel (which, by the way, is a novel about grief, not dogs). Paul, a linguist, learns that his wife has been found dead under the apple tree in their backyard. Since their dog, Lorelei, was the only witness to the death, Paul decides he must teach Lorelei to speak. His obsession is less about believing he can really teach a dog to talk than it is about his urgent need to believe that his wife’s death was an accident and not a reflection of the state of their marriage.

middle age book cover

Not all dogs are well behaved in life, so I wouldn’t expect them to be in books either. When Lionel finally returns home after cheating on Camille in Joyce Carol Oates’ Middle Age: A Romance, the dogs Camille has been accumulating ever since Lionel’s departure attack him. I admit it; I cheered wildly over that scene!

Well Written Dogs VS Books From The Dogs’ Points Of View

If you Google “novels that include dogs” you will find the obvious ones, the books that are basically all about dogs or are told from the dogs’ points of view. Most of them will even have dog names in their titles. There are no lists (that I could find at least) that talk about dogs more or less in the background of stories otherwise about humans. In many cases these background dogs are props, there to give us a hint about the personalities or motives of the characters. But if they’re well written dogs, they will come to life anyway, just as the characters do, and add that certain je ne sais quoi to the story. And meeting them so unexpectedly can feel like a real stroke of luck.

Joan SchweighardtJoan Schweighardt’s fifth novel, The Accidental Art Thief, includes three dogs, a German Shepherd and two mutts. It releases on May 15. You can keep apprised of the launch by liking the title at