Like many other readers, I first encountered Tracy Chevalier’s novels when I read The Girl With the Pearl Earring, an imagined story about the origins of the famous Vermeer painting that became a major movie starring Scarlett Johansson. I read The Virgin Blue, then somehow lost track of Chevalier’s novels until her US publicist approached me to interview her about the latest book, A Single Thread (Viking, 2019). Naturally, I leaped at the chance.
As it turned out—surprise, surprise!—a whole bunch of other people leaped at the chance as well. As of this week, it looks as if I won’t get to talk with Tracy Chevalier about this particular book, although I can hope to touch base with her some other time.
Never mind, I had a chance to read this perfectly lovely novel, which I might not have had time for otherwise, and now I have the chance to share it with you.
Like several other books that have come my way this year, A Single Thread looks at the long-term effects of the First World War and the period leading up the Second. At the moment when this story begins, it seems inconceivable that another great conflagration could sweep across Europe, but by the end Chevalier’s characters are just beginning to dread that very possibility.
A Single Thread centers around Violet Speedwell, a thirty-eight-year-old spinster living in Southampton in 1932. Violet is one of the “surplus women” of the 1920s and 1930s, unable to find another husband after the death of her fiancé in the middle of the First World War and still grieving the loss of her older brother. Her mother—who lives to complain, especially to and about Violet—assumes that her daughter will always remain at home to care for her. But Violet has other plans, which take her to Winchester, just far enough away for freedom.
There, as she struggles to survive on a secretary’s salary, a chance encounter with a society of stitchers set on bringing color into Winchester’s thousand-year-old cathedral by embroidering needlepoint kneelers, cushions, and alms bags opens a new door in her life. Despite never having sewn before, Violet soon learns the basic stitches while acquiring new friends and a satisfying hobby. And by following her single thread back into the past and forward into the future, she not only rights a few wrongs but discovers options she never imagined existed.