Emma is nursing Adele, a wealthy elderly woman, in her English summer home just as World War II is breaking. Adele is interested in Emma’s past, but Emma is reticent to answer these personal questions. She has something to hide. The narrative then moves from 1939 to 1914 as Emma reflects on her life while Adele sleeps.
Just prior to World War I, Emma and her husband are sent to Singapore when he becomes the export agent for his company. They set up house in the British expat community, away from the offensive sight of slums and terrible poverty. She is restricted from most activities outside her home and must stay within her insular community. At home, society expects her to have a housekeeper, which gives her more time for idleness and boredom. Emma warms to her Chinese housekeeper, Chun, who teaches her kesi. Kesi involves weaving detailed tapestries from delicate silk thread. The title, Emma’s Tapestry, implies that a tapestry plays a role throughout the novel. Disappointingly, it only provides a hobby and diversion for Emma.
Emma struggles under the weight of society’s expectations and to cope with a marriage full of conflict. To give her life some purpose, Emma gets a nursing job at the hospital against her husband’s orders. As WWI breaks out, the hospital takes in German POWs, and anti-German sentiments take hold. Emma, although born in America, is of German heritage. She lives in terrible fear of being discovered as a German – unconvincing since her accent is American and she is married to a British man.
The narrative shifts back and forth to Adele’s bedside and stories of her friend Oscar Wilde, which are pieces unrelated to Emma’s story. Any weakness in the plot is easy to overlook, however, because the story is immersive and well-written; and Emma, when facing adversity, is a heroine to admire.