With the embers of the Great War still fresh, Chevalier's A Single Thread plays out against the backdrop of the small British village of Winchester. The town provides an extremely fertile environment for the warp and weave of the Winchester Cathedral Broderers group, a guild of embroiderers established in medieval times whose mission is to teach the noble history of the craft. Like a PBS/Masterpiece series, A Single Thread methodically reels us into a struggle that pits thirty-something Violet Speedwell against her strong-willed mother, a classic snob accustomed to running roughshod over her daughter and anyone else. Luckily Violet has moved from Portsmouth to Winchester.
It is May 1932, Saint Dustin's Day, and Violet is attending a service at the town's cathedral. As she studies the other congregants, her interest is piqued by the Presentation of Embroideries and the magnificent cathedral blessed with many adornments over the centuries. This is only one thread in a dense latticework that includes her two typist friends, Mo and O; her equally tricky landlady, Mrs. Harvey; her affable brother, Tom who helps Violet cope with her mother over the years; best friend Gilda's anxiety that she will not be able to work a needle well enough to embroider anything for the cathedral; Miss Speedwell's devastation at the war death of George, her eldest son; Violet's sundry romance with Arthur, a bell ringer of Nether Wallop's Five Bells. All are magnified, as the months pass, by the surplus of single women unlikely to marry and now--by some--considered a threat in a society set up for marriage.
Chevalier gorgeously choreographs Violet's unglamorous efforts to make a living as a typist. As the stakes rise, so does the struggle. Violet sits and sighs in her cramped room. It is expected of women like her--unwed and unlikely to wed--to spend their lives looking after their parents. Violet has tried to do her best, but her mother is impossible. Tom, too, wishes that Violet would miraculously find a man to marry in this late age, "A widower perhaps, with grown children, or a man who needed help with injuries." Once married, she would be off Tom's hands forever, "a niggling burden" he would no longer have to worry about.
Violet takes a long walk through the bucolic Devon fields, seduced by the simmering waves of heat, the over-bright sun and the yellowed fields of wheat, hay and barley. She's arranged to meet Arthur at Nether Wallop, just two miles out of the way of the route. As Violet passes a mill along the brook, she realizes that nothing yet everything has changed. George is dead; her fiancé, Lawrence, is dead; her father is dead. Violet sees the world through new eyes. The long walk, the man in the cornfields, and the surprise of running into Arthur have not prepared her to tackle the memories of a place so connected to her past.
Chevalier's novel is nostalgic perfection, from Violet's social commitment to the Broderers, all called upon to work together, and Violet and Gilda's specialized efforts to make a kneeler after meeting at Church House, amid a row of houses in the Inner Close, to the amazing productivity of the Borderer women, bent over pieces of canvas, glancing at patterns, needling colored wool in and out of tiny holes, and Chief Broderer Louisa Pesel's gaze as she directs the group to create an old fashioned Sampler: "I beg not riches, nor yet length of days."
Almost a character unto itself, Winchester Cathedral squats "like a gray toad" in the background. Central Winchester, once a central base of power for many kings, comes alive. So does the Cathedral's Outer Close, spread out and crisscrossed by two paths lined with lime trees. Violet thinks of all the pieces Winchester has gathered together over the past 15 months: her room at Mrs. Harvey's; the office with Maureen; the Broderers, Louisa Pesel, Gilda, and Gilda's friend, Dorothy; the bell ringer Keith Bain; and most of all beloved Arthur. Placed together, they make up Violet's life of sorts.
Chevalier leaves us with a richer appreciation for how an ordinary woman like Violet can make an exceptional contribution to a group like the Broderers. Beneath the bells of Salisbury Cathedral, Violet reflects on how the Broderers symbolize a softer, more accommodating woman's world. The novel literally lurks with unknown stories--a husband gone, a surprise baby passed off, a misplaced passion, and a lost wife. The lesson of A Single Thread is how Violet must navigate as she gets one stich closer to carrying such things in her aching heart.