A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Violet Speedwell is a ‘surplus woman’ – a woman whose fiancé was killed in the First World War and who, like more than a million other British women, is now unlikely to find a husband because there are simply no longer enough men to go around. Tracy Chevalier’s new novel, A Single Thread, tells Violet’s story beginning in 1932 when Violet, who has stayed at home with her mother until the age of thirty-eight, decides that it’s finally time to move out and build a life of her own.

Moving from Southampton to nearby Winchester, Violet is determined to be financially independent but it’s not easy on the low wages she earns as a typist in the office of a small insurance company. By the time she’s paid to rent a room in a house shared with two other women she finds that she’s struggling to buy a hot meal or put coal on the fire. This is all very depressing at first, but a visit to Winchester Cathedral changes everything. Here she meets a group of women who call themselves the Winchester Cathedral Broderers and who devote their spare time to embroidering cushions and kneelers for the cathedral seats and benches. Violet decides to attend one of their weekly meetings and soon she is learning new skills and making new friends.

One of these friends is Gilda Hill, another single woman, who introduces her to Arthur, an older man who volunteers with a group of bell-ringers at the cathedral. Violet likes Arthur immediately but she is aware that he has a wife and daughter, so anything more than friendship must be out of the question. Still, with the help of Gilda, Arthur and others, Violet begins to find her place in her new community – until events back in Southampton force her to make an important decision.

This is a quiet, gentle book – not one with a dramatic, exciting plot – but I found it completely absorbing. I liked Violet and sympathised as she tried to navigate a society designed for men and married women; as a single woman she faced a large number of challenges and I particularly admired the way she dealt with her male employer who had never even considered the pay and working conditions of his female workers. Some of the other women amongst the Winchester Broderers had interesting stories of their own too, especially Gilda and Dorothy, and I was intrigued to learn that the woman leading the embroidery project, Louisa Pesel, was a real person.

I have to admit, the detailed descriptions of different types of embroidery stitches and patterns didn’t interest me all that much, but the enthusiasm of Violet and the other Broderers and the pride they took in their work came across strongly. Similarly, I didn’t share the passion of Arthur and his friends for bell-ringing, but I did enjoy hearing them explain what was involved and why they found it so rewarding.

I wasn’t completely satisfied with the way the book ended as I found it too predictable and would have preferred something more unconventional for Violet, but I still thought it was an enjoyable and insightful read, highlighting a section of 1930s society we don’t hear enough about.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

It’s been some time since I last read a Tracy Chevalier novel, but having enjoyed some of her books in the past, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read her latest one, At the Edge of the Orchard.

The story begins in 1838 in the Black Swamp of Ohio, where James and Sadie Goodenough are attempting to make a living from the harsh, inhospitable earth on which they have settled. With the help of their five children, James is working hard to establish an orchard with enough apple trees to satisfy the requirements to legally claim their piece of land. Sadie, who does not share her husband’s ambition, longs to move on and start again somewhere else – somewhere more comfortable and welcoming. Finding solace in the strong cider and applejack produced from the fruits of the orchard, Sadie’s is a miserable existence from which there seems to be no escape.

Time passes and we jump forward to the 1850s where the youngest Goodenough son, Robert, has made his way alone to California. What happened to the rest of the family? Why does Robert never get a reply to the letters he sends home to his brothers and sisters? We’ll have to wait until later in the book for these questions to be answered, but in the meantime we read about Robert’s work with the plant collector William Lobb, gathering seeds and plants to sell to gardeners in England. Having grown up surrounded by trees, this is the sort of job that interests Robert – yet there is still something missing from his life, and when he is finally given a chance of happiness, he will have to decide whether to take it.

I enjoyed At the Edge of the Orchard and found it a surprisingly compelling read. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, despite the title and the picture on the cover, which should have been clues, I wasn’t fully prepared for so much information on trees: in the orchard sections, we learn about different types of apple tree – the qualities of ‘eaters’ versus ‘spitters’; the taste of James’ favourite Golden Pippins; and the methods used to graft one tree onto another – and in the California sections we are given a wealth of information on the giant sequoia trees of Calaveras Grove. I have to admit, although I do appreciate the beauty and importance of trees, I have very little interest in them. I’m impressed that Tracy Chevalier managed to hold my attention from the first page to the last; I was never bored and would never have expected a book about trees to be so engaging!

Of course, this is not just a book about trees – it’s also a book about human beings, following the stories of several very different characters. At first, the Goodenoughs don’t seem to be a very pleasant set of people. James is decent enough, but with a tendency to be violent when things annoy him and a frustrating single-mindedness when it comes to growing and nurturing his precious apple trees. His wife, Sadie, is a deeply unhappy woman but any sympathy I may have had for her was destroyed by her bitter, spiteful nature and needlessly cruel actions. It wasn’t until later in the novel that I found some characters I could like and care about. In fact, a series of letters written by two of these characters broke my heart…the sense of loneliness and desperation they each felt came across so strongly.

The novel is carefully structured, moving backwards and forwards in time to ensure that certain things are kept hidden until it becomes necessary for us to know them. A mixture of styles are used to tell the story too, from the letters I’ve mentioned above to conventional third party narration and several passages narrated by Sadie in a very distinctive voice of her own. Although the story of the Goodenoughs is fictional, we also meet several real historical figures: the legendary Johnny Appleseed is one you may have heard of, but the English tree collector William Lobb was also a real person. There are so many different elements to At the Edge of the Orchard and they all come together to form one fascinating, enjoyable and very moving novel.

I’ve now read four Tracy Chevalier novels and so far they have all been very different, covering such diverse subjects as the Dutch art world (Girl with a Pearl Earring), fossil collecting on the south coast of England (Remarkable Creatures), religious conflict in 16th century France (The Virgin Blue) and now the trees and orchards of 19th century America. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books now that I’ve been reminded of them!

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Girl with a Pearl Earring Set in the 1660s, Girl with a Pearl Earring is narrated by Griet, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a tile painter who lives in Delft in the Netherlands. When her father is left unable to work after being blinded in an accident, he arranges for Griet to become a maid in the household of the artist Johannes Vermeer. Settling into her new job, Griet soon finds that coping with the cleaning, washing and dusting are the least of her worries; she also has to learn to deal with the hostility of Vermeer’s wife, the cruelty of one of their young daughters and the jealousy of the family’s other servant, Tanneke. And why is Tanneke jealous? Because Griet has been given the job of dusting Vermeer’s studio – a room rarely entered by the rest of the household. As the months go by, Griet watches painting after painting slowly take shape on Vermeer’s easel, but when she discovers that she herself is going to be the subject of his next portrait she senses that the fewer people who know about it the better…

Having read two of Tracy Chevalier’s other books, Remarkable Creatures and The Virgin Blue, it seemed silly that I still hadn’t read Girl with a Pearl Earring. Now that I’ve read it I can see why it’s her most famous novel. The thing I found most striking about the book is that the writing style actually feels like one of Vermeer’s paintings: clear and detailed and true to life. I am not an expert on Vermeer (or any other artist, to be honest) but this was something that I noticed almost immediately and was very impressed by. If you’re not familiar with Vermeer’s work I highly recommend searching for an image of each painting as it is referred to in the book – I can promise that it will add to your appreciation of the story and of Chevalier’s writing.

This book is set in a time and place that I know very little about and I loved the descriptions of 17th century Delft. Most of Griet’s time is devoted to carrying out her duties within the Vermeer home, but she also has plenty of opportunities to visit other areas of the town – buying meat for the family at the meat market, going to church, visiting her brother at the tile factory where he is an apprentice, or spending time with her parents and the young butcher they hope she will marry. I have never been to Delft but by the time I finished this book I felt I could almost picture what it would have been like to live and work there in the 1660s. The religious aspect of the book – the tensions between the town’s Catholic and Protestant people – was also handled well, showing us the distrust and suspicion that existed between the two communities.

Although there is a romantic element to the story it is quite understated. We are in no doubt as to how Griet feels about Vermeer – it’s noticeable that while she thinks of other people by name, Vermeer is always ‘he’ or ‘him’ and this instantly sets him apart from all the other characters in the story. However, Griet is very slow to admit to herself the significance he has in her life. The romantic aspect of the book is quiet and subtle and lacks drama and passion, as does the rest of the story, but I didn’t have a problem with that. I enjoyed following Griet’s everyday life – shopping at the market, chopping vegetables, dusting the studio – and I enjoyed learning about Vermeer’s work and painting techniques. I didn’t need drama.

But despite finding so much to like about this book, there were also some things that I didn’t like. With the exception of Griet, I thought most of the other characters felt more like stereotypes than fully developed characters. And while I did find the writing style very effective, there seemed to be a distance between the narrator and the reader; the books that I really love are the ones where I can share in the characters’ hopes and fears, where I can laugh with them and cry with them – but I didn’t feel any of that with this book. Still, of the three Chevalier novels I’ve now read, this is my favourite so far and I’m looking forward to trying some of her others.

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

The Virgin Blue was Tracy Chevalier’s debut novel, first published in 1997. The only other book I’ve read by Chevalier is her most recent one, Remarkable Creatures, but I found both the writing style and atmosphere of this one entirely different.

The Virgin Blue follows two separate storylines, one from the present and one from the past, which eventually become woven together. In the modern day story, we meet Ella Turner who leaves her home in California and moves to the small French village of Lisle-sur-Tarn when her husband is offered a new job in France. Ella has trouble fitting into her new community – the local people are hostile and unwelcoming, and only the librarian Jean-Paul makes any attempt at friendship. As she begins to dig deeper into her family history, Ella’s hair begins to turn gradually red and, haunted by dreams of a brilliant blue, she starts to become aware of the parallels between her own life and that of her 16th century ancestor, a girl called Isabelle.

Isabelle de Moulin was a young peasant girl, known as La Rousse in reference to her red hair, who married Etienne Tournier, a man from a Huguenot family. With her red hair, her skills as a midwife and her love of the Virgin Mary and the colour blue, Isabelle is an object of suspicion. When the Tourniers find themselves under threat from their neighbouring Catholics, they are forced to flee France for Geneva in Switzerland, where they can follow their religion in freedom. It’s Isabelle’s tragic story that forms the second thread in The Virgin Blue.

I thought the alternating time periods in this book were handled well and they were each written in a distinctive style so that there could be no confusion. The Isabelle chapters had a dreamlike feel, almost like reading a fairytale. These chapters were also very sad and dark. Poor Isabelle was surrounded by cruel, vindictive people and seemed to have very little happiness in her life. Her story unfolded very slowly, being interspersed with Ella’s, and from the beginning there was always a sense of foreboding, a feeling that something bad was going to happen to Isabelle or her children.

I loved the setting of rural France, with its beautiful countryside and picturesque villages. Chevalier gives just enough detail to bring the landscape to life, without weighing the story down with too much description. The one thing that let this novel down for me was the characters. With the possible exception of Jean-Paul none of them felt quite real to me. I thought Rick, Ella’s husband, was especially bland and wooden, to the point where I didn’t even care what happened to him. The characters in the 16th century storyline never really came to life for me either.

So The Virgin Blue, for me, was an enjoyable but forgettable book. Despite the weak characters, I was able to become absorbed in the story while I was reading it but by the next day it was already fading from my mind. Having read Chevalier’s oldest book and her newest I’m now looking forward to reading the ones in between!

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

First of all, this is probably my last post until after Christmas, so whether you celebrate it or not I hope you all have a great weekend! Now, back to my thoughts on Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable Creatures is set in the town of Lyme Regis on the south coast of England during the early part of the nineteenth century. It’s the story of two very different women who are brought together by a shared love of collecting fossils. Mary Anning is a young working-class girl who has lived in the town all her life and hunts for fossils for her family to sell to tourists. Elizabeth Philpot, twenty years older than Mary and from a middle-class background, moves to Lyme Regis with her two unmarried sisters. Her interest in fossils begins when she discovers an unusual stone on the windswept beach. Eager to have someone to share her new passion with, Elizabeth finds an unexpected friend in Mary.

Before I started this book I had no interest in fossils; I still don’t, unfortunately. I found the whole fossil aspect of the book pretty boring, but that’s not the fault of the author. I could still enjoy the story even though the subject bored me, and it did raise some interesting questions regarding the theory of evolution (the book was set several decades before Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species).

I do admire Tracy Chevalier for creating a story based around such an unusual topic and real-life characters who aren’t very well known. Mary Anning (pictured here with her dog, Tray) and Elizabeth Philpot are both real historical figures who contributed to the science of palaeontology, and as I knew nothing about either of them it was good to have the opportunity to learn about their lives. It was only after finishing the book and looking up the real-life Mary and Elizabeth that I realised how many details Chevalier had included that were based on fact.

I could sympathise with two women trying to gain recognition in a male-dominated field and the difficulties they faced in getting people to take notice of their work and give them the credit they deserved. They were unable to join the Geological Society of London, for example, because it was open only to men.

“That is all she will get, I thought: a scrap of thanks crowded out by far more talk of glory for beast and man. Her name will never be recorded in scientific journals or books, but will be forgotten. So be it. A woman’s life is always a compromise.”

Although I can’t say I loved Remarkable Creatures, it was enjoyable enough and a gentle, easy read. I do think it’s great though that this book has helped to bring two very important but little-known women back into the public eye.

New Book Arrivals

I haven’t bought any new books for a while as I’ve been running out of shelf space (as usual!) and have been trying to read some of the books that I already own or borrowed from the library, but here are a few that I’ve acquired in the last couple of weeks.

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory – I received this from Simon & Schuster for their upcoming Red Queen blog tour (16th-20th August). They also sent me the paperback version of the previous book in the trilogy, The White Queen.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier – I received this book as a thank you gift from Harper Collins for participating in a readers’ panel survey. I have yet to read anything by Tracy Chevalier so I’m looking forward to it.

Second Hand Heart by Catherine Ryan Hyde – I’m taking part in the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge, where bloggers can choose four titles to be sent for review during the summer. This is the first book I’ve received for the challenge – the other three I’ve requested are After You by Julie Buxbaum, If I Stay by Gayle Forman and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. (I think there’s still time to sign up at the Between the Lines blog – but it’s EU residents only.)