Blurb from Goodreads
From the globally bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring
It is 1932, and the losses of the First World War are still keenly felt. Violet Speedwell, mourning for both her fiancé and her brother and regarded by society as a ‘surplus woman’ unlikely to marry, resolves to escape her suffocating mother and strike out alone.
A new life awaits her in Winchester. Yes, it is one of draughty boarding-houses and sidelong glances at her naked ring finger from younger colleagues; but it is also a life gleaming with independence and opportunity. Violet falls in with the broderers, a disparate group of women charged with embroidering kneelers for the Cathedral, and is soon entwined in their lives and their secrets. As the almost unthinkable threat of a second Great War appears on the horizon Violet collects a few secrets of her own that could just change everything…
Warm, vivid and beautifully orchestrated, A Single Thread reveals one of our finest modern writers at the peak of her powers.
This was my first time reading a novel by Tracy Chevalier and I have a somewhat mixed reaction. That’s not to say the book is not enjoyable, because it really is. But something was a little bit missing for me and by about the 2/3 mark I was really ready for the book to be over.
A Single Thread follows the character of Violet Speedwell in 1930s England. Violet is in her late thirties and is what is known at the time as a “surplus woman” meaning that she is unmarried and most likely without any prospects of ever getting married. Both Violet’s brother and fiancé were killed in World War I and she is still very much mourning the loss of these important men from her life.
The story starts with Violet finally asserting her independence and leaving her home to come live and work in Winchester. One day she stumbles across a church service where a group of women volunteering as broaderers (people who embroider) are presenting their work, kneelers and cushions, at the cathedral. And thereafter Violet becomes a broaderer herself and gets involved in the secrets and lives of some of these women. She also gets to know some of the bell ringers and is particularly taken by a married man named Arthur.
One of the things I loved the most about this book is the research and historical accuracy of both embroidery and bell ringing.
This book is brim full of careful details about canvas embroidery (needlepoint) and as someone who dabbles in both knitting and sewing I found this fascinating. It was so interesting learning about the stitches and patterns used to create kneelers and cushions for Winchester Cathedral in the 1930s. And what truly made this book standout was the fact that one of the characters in the book was actually based on a real life person from that era, Louisa Pesel. I only discovered this fact as I was reading the acknowledgements section at the end of the book and it made perfect sense to me when I read about this woman’s embroidery legacy Winchester Cathedral because Lousia was one of the most memorable and authentic feeling characters in the book.
The book also sheds light on the skill of bell ringing in churches and cathedrals. It’s truly amazing to read about these men that were so committed to enriching their parish’s daily activities.
Both these topics could so easily have been dull to read about but Chevalier somehow managed to bring them both alive and really helped me to appreciate the skill sets of the characters involved in these activities.
I also really enjoyed reading about Violet and found her to be a thoroughly engaging main character. I liked that she had some spunk in her but also had many doubts. It was the juxtaposition of the two that made her feel quite human.
It was the majority of the supporting characters that I feel let the book down. I did really enjoy the LGBTQ+ storyline that involved one of Violet’s friends but I found the characterisations of her mother and surviving brother to be somewhat lacking. They felt rather cliched rather than truly authentic to me. And I struggled to ever really feel invested in the subtly written relationship between Violet and Arthur. I kept hoping Violet would just kick him to the curb and that storyline would wrap up half way through the book as I truly did not understand her connection to him. Sadly this wasn’t the case and Arthur hung around annoying me until the very end!
This book is definitely a book more concerned with character than plot, and because I felt rather ambivalent about so many of the supporting characters I think that’s why I feel somewhat mixed about this book. So much of their stories just felt perfunctory in that I felt I was being told things as a reader rather than truly feeling them.
All in all this was a positive reading experience and I definitely would read something by Chevalier again.
An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, The Borough Press/Harper Collins UK, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
PUBLISHING: SEPTEMBER 5TH 2019