Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Single Thread

Title:  A Single Thread
Author:  Tracy Chevalier
Publication Information:  Viking. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0525558241 / 978-0525558248

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Shhh!"

Favorite Quote:  "It is perhaps difficult to understand if you have not had children yourself. The biological imperative of the parent is to protect the child, and when that is impossible it feels like a failure, whatever the circumstances. It is a complicated feeling to live with for the rest of your life."

A Single Thread actually follows a number of story threads within it - the story of Violet Speedwell, the history of a time and place, and a depiction of the arts of bell ringing and of embroidery.

Violet Speedwell lost her brother and her fiancé in World War I. In 1932, she is unmarried. At the time and place, she is considered doomed to be a spinster and as such on the periphery of society. She begins surrounded by her mother, a woman made bitter by her own losses, and her brother, who has a family of his own. Violet's story is of a woman trying to live independently on her own terms despite the limits society tries to impose.

The first world war brought losses beyond measure that lasted far beyond the immediate destruction. Parents lost children. Wives lost husbands. Children lost parents. After the end of the war, the toll of of the losses continued. That is one element of the story of this society. The other element is the intolerant and strict norms that continued to rule the society. Women had their place in society. A relationship was between a man and a woman. And so on. This broader story is told through its impact on Violet and the other characters in the book.

Beyond the societal history, this book presents an interesting depiction of the arts of bell ringing (which I know nothing about) and of embroidery (which I know a little something about). Violet discovers both these arts when she leaves her mother's home to move out on her own to the town of Winchester. Winchester is home to the Winchester Cathedral. There is a group of devoted men who are the bell ringers of the cathedral. There is also a group of devoted women - the broderers - who embroider and sew kneelers and cushions to bring color and comfort to the worshippers in the cathedral. Violet finds friendship and more in both.

I love the premise of a woman staking a claim to her independence. I enjoy the picture of the time and place. I appreciate the ending, giving voice to the power of sisterhood. That being said, ultimately, I find myself not the reader for this book for a few reasons.

First and foremost is the fact that the balance of the book for me ends up with the depiction of the history - the cathedral, the bell ringing, and the embroidering. Violet and her story become a vehicle for the history rather than the history forming a backdrop for the story. Historical fiction needs to find that balance between history and fiction, and in this one, the fiction fell behind.

Second, one storyline that surrounds Violet and hints at violence against women seems a jarring note and unnecessary to Violet's quest for independence. It seems to just not fit. I continue to think about it  and still cannot determine why other than to reinforce society's concern that a woman alone is at risk. That is an unfortunate statement in a book about an independent woman.

Thirdly, the pace of the story is very slow, especially as the ending that comes as no surprise. Finally, I do wish that a woman's story of independence and sisterhood would remain that and not find its way into a romantic relationship. My greatest appreciation for the book is in its look at an interesting time in history that is not the setting for too many books I have read.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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