Saturday, November 13, 2021

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier, one of my favorite books of 2021

Title: A Single Thread
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publication: Viking, hardcover, 2019
Genre: Historical fiction
Setting: 20th century England
Description: Violet Speedwell is part of the generation of British women who lost fiancĂ©s, husbands, and brothers in World War I. She realizes she is supposed to care for her difficult widowed mother indefinitely without any opportunity for independence, but perhaps because Mrs. Speedwell has belittled her once too often, she manages to transfer to her employer’s Winchester office and finds a respectable boarding house. Visiting Winchester Cathedral, she sees a massive embroidery project that is creating seat cushions and kneelers which will provide long-lasting beauty for the congregation. Violet realizes she wants to craft something that will make her part of the Cathedral and as she joins the broderers, she makes friends who will challenge her assumptions and her quiet life by making her take a stand. Although she had given up on romance after her fiancĂ© died, Violet falls in love with one of the Cathedral’s bell-ringers and this also transforms her.

My Impression: A Slender Thread is a luminous book of self-discovery as Violet slowly emerges from a period of prolonged grief and recognizes and then achieves a measure of independence and happiness. Considered “surplus” and condescended to in a million ways because she is single (everyone stares at her left hand to see if she is married, the doctor only wants to speak to her brother, her employer says single women are unreliable because they leave to care for aged parents, married women seem to think that single ladies are predatory and can’t be left alone with their husbands, etc.), it would be much easier emotionally and financially for Violet to stay home with her difficult mother. Her move to Winchester is not initially successful as she cannot fully support herself on her salary so is both hungry and lonely.
She musters her wits at Winchester Cathedral, not because she is religious – she no longer has confidence in God after her losses – but because it is beautiful and gives her sustenance:
Whenever she walked through the front entrance below the Great West Window and into the cathedral, the long nave in front of her and the vast space above bounded by a stunning vaulted ceiling, Violet felt the whole weight of the nine-hundred-year-old building and wanted to cry. It was the only place built specifically for spiritual sustenance in which she felt she was being spiritually fed. Not necessarily from the services, which apart from Evensong were formulaic and rigid, though the repetition was comforting. It was more the reverence for the place itself, for the knowledge of the many thousands of people who had come there during its history, looking for a place in which to be free to consider the big questions of life and death rather than worrying about paying for the winter’s coal or needing a new coat.
Chevalier has a section on her website about Louisa Pesel, the muse behind the embroidery (actually, needlepoint) who inspires Violet to become an avid stitcher.  Pesel, a real character, and all these broderers' work lives on in Winchester Cathedral:
Photo copyright: Jon Drori
It is a little surprising to me that Violet becomes fixated on a married man nearly twice her age but he is kind, listens to her, and treats her like an intelligent being, which no one else does, even her affectionate younger brother. We don’t see as much of Arthur’s feelings yet there is no doubt he cares for Violet but recognizes a duty to his failing wife. In contrast to Arthur, who is respectful, is the evil Jack Wells, a dissolute farmer who seems obsessed with Violet, reminding the reader how truly vulnerable a woman is for all her hard-won independence. If he assaults Violet, she will be blamed for not having been safely at home. After all, her landlady says it’s not decent for women to go outside after nine o’clock.
I remember reading The Girl with the Pearl Earring and Chevalier is inextricably linked with Vermeer in my mind forevermore. The Google Doodle paid tribute today to Vermeer and he has also been in the news because of a recent restoration of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window which revealed a naked Cupid, drastically altering the background of a quiet interior scene. Alas, the painting is in Dresden, which is not very convenient.  I am not an ardent Dutch master fan but I would like to see this.  This is my twenty-fourth book in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.
Source: Library.  This is one of the few books to which I have awarded 5 stars this year.  Some of the others were State of Terror by Louise Penny and HRC, Anthem by Deborah Wiles, Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher, and a reread of Thursday's Child by Noel Streatfeild.


Sue in Suffolk said...

I loved it too when I read it a couple of years ago. Think it must nearly be time for her to write a new book. I've enjoyed them all - each one on a different subject and well researched

Lory said...

This does sound so lovely. I am looking forward to reading it - a book about a place of beauty and self-discovery sounds just right.

Cath said...

I've read a handful of Tracy Chevalier's books, my favourite is Falling Angels, but I also liked the underground railway one. This one sounds 'excellent'. My youngest daughter went to Winchester uni and was presented with her degree in the cathedral so I have been inside. And Winchester is such a gorgeous city.

JaneGS said...

Tracy Chevalier is one of my favorite novelists, and I absolutely loved A Single Thread. So glad that you did too. From the needlework to the beauty of the cathedral to the bell-wringers to the time period, it was a perfect combo for me and I was cheering for Violet the whole time! In so many ways, it really is a coming of age story.

Wonderful review and thanks for the images.

Anonymous said...

"Some of the others were State of Terror by Louise Penny and HRC," My husband and I read aloud, often mysteries, at 4 p.m. each day and just finished State of Terror. Yes, it is excellent, and the thread of accuracy throughout sustains its believability, although the horrific slaughter was gratuitous and depressing, an apparent indictment of the US's failure in the area of surveillance and espionage.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I'm always on the lookout for books that become a reader's favorite books of the year. Thank you for sharing this one.

TracyK said...

Constance, you are inspiring me to read more books that I don't already have and have no space for. The time setting sounds perfect and the use of Winchester Cathedral also. I used to do needlepoint and other types of needlework. I am going to have to look for a copy of this.

CLM said...

Hopefully, your library is open again so you can borrow instead of buy! I liked this so much I am tempted to buy it for my sister. I have never done needlepoint but I have done crewel and cross-stitch so appreciated all the needlecraft. Now I try to do small sewing or quilting projects - I have one just waiting for the Winter Olympics when I will spend a lot of time in front of the TV.