Review: 'A Single Thread,' By Tracy ChevalierTracy Chevalier's new novel follows a woman left alone after her fiance and brother died in World War I. She decides to make her mark on the world by joining a guild of embroiderers at a cathedral.
This line from Tracy Chevalier's new A Single Thread perfectly sums up a story about how a needle and the right stitch can change the course of a life.
A Single Thread focuses on 38-year-old Violet Speedwell, who's piecing together a life for herself after her fiancé and her beloved brother both died in World War I. She's part of a generation in which a woman's worth is defined by her role as a wife, widow or mother — and by 1932, Violet knows she's not going to be any of those things. She's a surplus woman, alone in the world, with no chance to marry as a result of the Great War's devastation of the male population.
For Violet, the label "surplus" amounts to a curse. Unless a woman has a dowry or family with wealthy purse-strings, she is an outcast, and in Violet's case, dependent upon a disjointed, dysfunctional family for her livelihood — unless she makes a change.
And so she does. Violet leaves home for the nearby city of Winchester and gets a job as a typist at an insurance company, in a building with no heat, lazy co-workers, and a salary of 35 shillings a week, which barely covers the rent she pays for a small room in a boarding house where she dines mostly on biscuits and tea.
Thankfully, early in the story, Violet shows some mettle when she encounters the Winchester Cathedral Broderers, a group of women volunteers who make the gorgeously embroidered kneeling cushions for the Cathedral. As Violet points out, kneelers are serious business: The hard stone floors of the cathedrals make them essential, and the women who stitch them are rightfully proud of their beautiful, long-lasting creations.
Fascinated by the process, Violet takes a risk and makes her interest clear: She wants to make her mark on the world, and she wants to do it by making a kneeler. Now, her journey begins in earnest, and as she perfects the stitches necessary to create the sturdy kneelers, she also develops the skills to mend the broken pieces of her life.
I was immediately captivated by Chevalier's ability to tell a big story while focusing on the small things that make characters memorable and also relatable. I like Violet. She loves to type (I mean seriously old-typewriter style typing), take long walks, and drink tea (of course). She also enjoys her occasional "sherry men," dates where she seeks companionship; she's a spinster but not a prude.
Chevalier is skilled with setting, too. We learn the area around Winchester through its churches, rivers (the description of the Test and fly-fishing is glorious), flower gardens, and holidays — especially Violet's courageous choice to take a solo long-distance walking holiday.
The symbolism is sometimes a bit on the nose as Violet's growth from victim to the ruler of her destiny is marked out in needlepoint stitches. But the pacing, although leisurely, doesn't distract from the power of the story. The plot, and Chevalier's delicate handling of Violet's love interest, is seamless as well. Violet unpicks the knots on her canvas and in her life, fixing her mistakes as she weaves from grief to passion to self-fulfillment.
On the other hand, the men in the book reflect their time. They aren't malicious (for the most part) or condescending (rarely) or needlessly unlikeable (except for one or two). Violet's brother Tom is a responsible family man and a caring brother. And then there's 60-year-old Arthur, who rides his bicycle 14 miles to and from town to serve as a bell ringer at the Cathedral — bell ringing is almost as important to the story as embroidery. These men, especially Arthur, are key characters, but the focus of Chevalier's novel is the women who choose happiness over the protocol of their time.
The result: A Single Thread is a fascinating story about building something long-lasting by beginning with one small stitch.
Denny S. Bryce writes historical fiction and urban fantasy. Her first novel, Wild Women and the Blues, is set for release in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter: @dennysbryce.