Title: A Single Thread
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publication date: September 17, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
1932. After the Great War took both her beloved brother and her fiancé, Violet Speedwell has become a “surplus woman,” one of a generation doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the war killed so many young men. Yet Violet cannot reconcile herself to a life spent caring for her grieving, embittered mother. After countless meals of boiled eggs and dry toast, she saves enough to move out of her mother’s place and into the town of Winchester, home to one of England’s grandest cathedrals. There, Violet is drawn into a society of broderers–women who embroider kneelers for the Cathedral, carrying on a centuries-long tradition of bringing comfort to worshippers.
Violet finds support and community in the group, fulfillment in the work they create, and even a growing friendship with the vivacious Gilda. But when forces threaten her new independence and another war appears on the horizon, Violet must fight to put down roots in a place where women aren’t expected to grow. Told in Chevalier’s glorious prose, A Single Thread is a timeless story of friendship, love, and a woman crafting her own life.
A Single Thread is a quiet, low-key historical novel that I probably never would have picked up on my own, so I’m glad my book group picked it for our June read.
Set in 1932, Violet Speedwell’s story unfolds as she settles into her new independent life in Winchester. At age 38, Violet is a spinster, one of the many women left alone after losing a loved one during the Great War. Still grieving her lost brother and fiance, Violet felt crushed by the demands of living with her embittered mother, and moved to Winchester to create distance and find a new path for herself.
In Winchester, she works as a typist at an insurance office, and happens by chance to discover the society of “broderers” — the embroidery group who create beautiful cushions and kneelers for the cathedral. Although Violet has never embroidered, she’s fascinated by the group’s work, and longs to create something of beauty of her own, as a way to leave her own mark on the world.
Joining the broderers, she not only becomes absorbed by her new craft, but also finds friendship and a sense of belonging and purpose. She also meets Arthur, one of the cathedral’s bell-ringers, a kind older man who cares for his fragile wife, yet seems to share a mutual attraction with Violet.
Over the course of the novel, we see Violet emerge from her loneliness and grief and start to make a life for herself, finding new hope and meaning in the community she’s chosen.
Violet’s story is lovely in its own quiet way. An action-packed plot this is not — and if this weren’t a book group book, I’m not sure I would have made it past the early chapters, with all their details on cathedrals and embroidery. I’m glad I stuck with it. A Single Thread is a gently, lovely read, and while the ending was perhaps a little too rosy to be entirely believable, I found it overall to be a thoughtful, graceful experience.