A SINGLE THREAD by Tracy Chevalier (Viking, 321 pp., $27).
In her engaging novels, Tracy Chevalier brings to life settings as different as 17th century Holland (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”) and frontier-era America (“At the Edge of the Orchard”), often through the stories of women neglected by history. Chevalier’s new book, “A Single Thread,” turns to England in the early 1930s and gives us a conflicted but determined protagonist emblematic of the generation of “surplus women” created by World War I, struggling to achieve meaningful lives in a society that has little use for females who are neither wives nor mothers.
Like many of her peers, Violet Speedwell lost her fiance in the war and at 38 does not expect to marry. Living at home was bearable when her gentle father acted as a buffer between Violet and her impossible mother, but after his death she relocates to nearby Winchester. Her salary as a typist is barely sufficient, but scrimping on heat and meals is preferable to listening to Mrs. Speedwell alternate between dismissiveness — when informed of the move, she sniffs that Violet should go to Canada, “where the husbands are” — and guilt-mongering. “If I don’t wake up one morning and no one discovers me dead in my bed for days," Mrs. Speedwell moans, "she’ll be sorry then!”
We meet Violet in May 1932, being indignantly shushed by an officious woman guarding the Winchester Cathedral choir against interlopers to the Presentation of the Embroideries. Violet is intrigued by what she hears of this project “to bring color and comfort to those who come to services” in the form of kneelers and seat cushions embroidered by a group of female volunteers who call themselves “broderers” (the medieval name for those artisans). Though the war’s devastation shook her faith, Violet is eager to reconnect with something greater than herself and to make something that will outlive her. “A kneeler was a stupid, tiny gesture, but there it was,” she thinks tartly. This heroine is no shrinking violet.
Joining the broderers brings Violet new friends and a sense of purpose, Chevalier demonstrates, as she neatly — sometimes too neatly — lays out a plot that confronts Violet with sexism, homophobia and a stalker who would be scarier if his motive was more specific than free-floating menace. The characterizations are also broad, but vivid. Assertive, independent-minded Violet is still a woman of her time; she outmaneuvers but never directly challenges her patronizing boss, and she is initially discomfited by the realization that two fellow broderers have a romantic relationship, though she later defends them. Voluble, sociable Gilda and eccentric, Latin-spouting Dorothy present a classic case of opposites attracting, while the bullying Mrs. Biggins and philosophical Miss Pesel form a similarly contrasting (nonromantic) pair directing the broderers.
Drawing on her customary thorough research, Chevalier provides nicely evocative detail about different embroidery stitches and the imaginative designs created by Miss Pesel (a historic figure). She also offers a crash course in the ancient art of church bell ringing, to which Violet is drawn by her deepening friendship with Arthur, a considerably older married man who is a ringer at the cathedral. Arthur’s wife remains so traumatized by their son’s death in the war that it’s out of the question for Arthur to leave her, but that doesn’t prevent him and Violet from falling in love. Understanding that she must forge her own future, Violet assembles an unconventional family that raises her neighbors’ eyebrows, but promises a way forward for women who refuse to be “surplus” anymore. With this hopeful yet poignant conclusion, Tracy Chevalier once again proves herself a reflective and generous crafter of smart, thoughtful popular fiction.