I truly enjoyed listening to this atmospheric book. Set in the early 1930s in Winchester, England, the structural center of the book is the Winchester Cathedral. It provides a location for various plot points, but more than that, it symbolizes an experience that we don’t have in America: a living institution whose history reaches back well over a millennium. That vast expanse of events and cultural legacy, as well as the more recent trauma of the Great War, looms over the book. It helps us to understand the ambivalence many in the UK felt as the threat of Hitler rose.
In addition, the cathedral is the space where everyday men and women find pleasure and solace in communal acts of creativity, the women in embroidering kneelers and bench cushions for the cathedral, and the men in ringing its massive set of bells. I found the details of these activities fascinating. Humor and satire appear here, as individual women and men in both activities substitute imposition of rigid social customs and activity rules for real power that they do not wield.
Chevalier does a masterful job directing the third person narration exclusively through the main character, Violet Speedwell. At the start of the story, Violet lives with her mother, who is one of the book’s weaknesses: an unfortunate caricature of an overbearing and bitter woman. Together Violet and her mother have borne a lot: the loss of a beloved brother and of Violet’s fiancé in the war, followed by the death of Violet’s father. An important theme in the book, the position of women at the dawn of modernity, has its start here. Violet’s younger brother is free to pursue his career and his family, while Violet is expected to live with her mother and care for her. The only acceptable excuse to leave is marriage and in her late 30s, it’s assumed that she is a spinster. Violet’s path to independence is at the core of A Single Thread, supplemented by the stories of several well-drawn secondary female characters.
Although a lot happens, this is essentially a quiet book. If you are looking for a thrumming plot, this isn’t for you. Happily, it resonates with me.