Study This: A Spool of Blue Thread

I’d forgotten how much I enjoy Anne Tyler, “winner of the Pulitzer Prize” (in 1989 for Breathing Lessons) as the cover of my hardback copy says, conveniently leaving out a host of other prizes and details, including that her first college prof, Reynolds Price, once said she was almost as good a writer at sixteen—when she entered college—as she was twenty-five years later.

Her latest novel is about family myths—you know, those stories we think know, because, hey, we were there—and is, you might say, the same Anne Tyler novel we’ve been reading for years:

  • a Baltimore, Maryland, setting
  • human relationships, particularly families and marriages
  • comedy juxtaposed against tragedy
  • eccentric characters that seem so familiar and real

Which is precisely why there’s something to learn here.

I’ll suggest just three things you should pay attention to.

First, the jacket blurb tells us,

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.

Yes, it’s a big story—lots of years, lots of characters, lots of details—but Tyler manages to wrap it up in 358 pages, which is a perfectly delightful length for a novel. (I’m looking at you, Donna Tartt.) Think about the things she must have done to keep the sprawl in check: ruthless editing, and a good device to hold it all together (in this case, the house).

Second, Tyler is on record saying character is everything, and this is easy to believe if you’re familiar with her work. And yet—in spite of the fact that her characters are sometimes described as quirky or eccentric—they are utterly believable. The Guardian says, “The extraordinary thing about all her writing is the extent to which she makes one believe every word, deed and breath”—even when they are odd ducks. Why? It’s the telling details, the characters’ inner lives, and our common humanity—we all have jobs, all have mothers, all must eat, and so on—that make them so real and relatable.

Finally, the thing that knocked me out in A Spool of Blue Thread is the simplicity—the plainness—of Tyler’s writing. Unlike many less experienced writers who feel like they have to produce writerly, literary sentences to be sure we’re impressed with The Writing, Anne Tyler’s prose is quiet, unshowy. It’s “prose that never draws attention to its graceful wit,” says the Washington Post. Regardless of how you feel about Tyler’s body of work—and she has her critics—if you are a writer, you should study her prose. I am a big fan of simplicity in writing.

There’s much, much more here to enjoy than I have mentioned. But if you’re a student of craft, there’s plenty to see. Have a look.

Tweet: I’d forgotten how much I enjoy reading Anne Tyler.
Tweet: Anne Tyler’s prose is quiet, unshowy—and I like that about her.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. I like Anne Tyler…theoretically. She’s a master of the craft, but I find the milieu she creates cloying, like being right next to a honeysuckle on a warm spring day.

    If she and Stephen Ambrose could have worked together…wow.

    Do you ever think along those lines, Jamie, of what two authors might have hypothetically accomplished as a team?

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      I think Tyler is just “not for you”! The things you mention are complaints others have—and that’s the beauty of the myriad choices we have in the book world, no? We don’t all have to like the same thing.

      Re authors working as a team, no I haven’t given that much thought! I’m not deep enough. :)