A Single Thread

Written by Tracy Chevalier
Review by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt

1932. Violet Speedwell is one of the “surplus women” created by the deaths of so many English men during the Great War. Her fiancé and brother were killed in the war, and her father has recently died. At thirty-eight she is resigned to spinsterhood; however, she is not resigned to living with her bitter, vocally abusive mother. Violet transfers her typing skills to an insurance office in Winchester, where she can barely afford room and board, living with Mrs Harvey and two other single, working women. Lonely and looking for friendship, Violet becomes a broderer, one of the women who embroider kneelers and cushions for the cathedral. She also befriends, somewhat inappropriately, an older man who is a bell ringer at the cathedral.

Violet’s struggle for independence is hindered by her family, her society, and, in places, her own insecurity. As she meets others and opens her mind to different ways of seeing people and the world, Violet grows strong. But will she be strong enough to choose what will truly give her happiness? And what might that happiness cost others?

Chevalier can make things to which you never gave a second thought fascinating and exciting. Here, it is canvas embroidery (needlepoint) and bells rung by pulling a cord, as done in Winchester Cathedral. In addition to these obscure topics, A Single Thread is about grief and friendship, about family and love, about the aftereffects of war and the misappropriation of a symbol. Chevalier weaves her story with perfect pressure and balance, giving the history, setting and characters color and emotion. She is one of the best historical novelists of our time. Highly recommended.