Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Single Thread

I'm a long time fan of Tracy Chevalier, and have read about half of her books, beginning with Girl With a Pearl Earring, and I just finished A Single Thread. One of the things I like about Chevalier is that the subjects (settings, premise) of her novels vary widely. She really can never be accused of repeating herself.

A Single Thread is about Violet Speedwell, a thirty-something spinster who lost her fiance in the Great War and has just moved out of her mother's house in Southampton and is trying to build a life for herself in the cathedral town of Winchester.

The novel explored and examined a number of activities that I am absolutely fascinated by. Violet joins the cathedral embroidery society whose mission is to make kneelers and cushions for the cathedral, and she learns to embroider. It's been years since I did any embroidery or cross-stitch because I want to save my eyesight for reading, but hearing Violet's meditations on the relaxed focus that embroidery can impart made me want to pull out my floss and start a new project!

Violet meets a very nice older man with whom she develops a deep friendship, and he happens to be a bell-ringer, not only at Winchester Cathedral but also in his own village's parish church. Again, I loved hearing about the intricacies of bell ringing--from the mathematical construction of the patterns, to what a peal of bells actually involves, to the physical strength it takes to ring and well, to  the community and social structure of the bell-ringers themselves.

And then there's the cathedral itself. I love medieval architecture and reading about someone who is able to spend hours in the cathedral was wonderful. She finds Tudor era graffiti, goes up to the bell tower, and learns some of its secret passageways. Seriously good stuff!

In many ways, A Single Thread is a coming of age story. Despite Violet being 38, WWI essentially froze her in time and stunted her development as an adult. By breaking away from her domineering mother, supporting herself, finding friends, and building a life for herself that has meaning and purpose, she is finally able to shuffle out from under the oppressive weight of WWI and live fully.

Sadly, WWII is looming on the horizon--the story takes place in the early thirties, when Hitler was coming to power, and many people couldn't really believe he would survive long politically.

I really enjoyed A Single Thread and watching Violet grow into herself. There were suspenseful sections--Chevalier does a great job of introducing a physical threat to Violet that provides an undercurrent of unease that undercuts the seemingly mild life that Violet leads. I also really enjoyed the extended family that Violet creates for herself out of a medley of friends that are themselves on the fringes of society.

Oh, and yes, Violet does visit Jane Austen's grave at one point :)


  1. This sounds great! I've only read The Girl with the Pearl Earring and I have had Remarkable Creatures on my TBR for a while. Like you, I enjoy historical fiction where I learn something.

    I don't know if you have ever read Dorothy Sayer's The Nine Tailors but that book also goes into depth about bell ringing. It is much more complicated that one would think. :D

    1. Yes, I have read Sayers” The Nine Tailors, and loved it. Due for a reread, I think!

  2. My wife read Girl with the Pearl Earring and likes it. I have been thinking of giving that book a try. It is a really good thing when authors write books that are different from one another. This one sounds worth the read too.

  3. I enjoy Tracy Chevalier, but hadn't heard about this book. I've added it to my list!

  4. The breadth of her stories is amazing. I love that she writes about such varied characters and time periods; I never get bored reading her books.

  5. I did get this novel from the library but I haven't gotten to start it yet. I'm glad you liked it. I like historical fiction so I think I will like this one.

  6. What a great sounding novel. I've had it on my tbr list, and your review intrigues me even more. I used to enjoy the odd cross-stitch or two in my life before kids, and think the references, and historical theme will be great.

  7. I'm a fan of Chevalier too - the Lady and The Unicorn is well worth reading if you enjoyed the needlework elements of The Thread.