"A Single Thread" proves a rather ironic title for the quiet tapestry that Tracy Chevalier has created in this novel set in 1932, in England, after the Great War. Violet Speedwell is a member of the population known as "surplus women," given that so many men died in the war _ Violet's brother and fiance among them _ that there are too few left to provide marriageable prospects. Spinsterhood needn't mean an empty life, however. When Violet leaves her overbearing mother to take a job as a typist in Winchester, she encounters a community of broderers _ women who embroider exquisite kneelers for the wondrous cathedral, carrying on a centuries-old tradition of bringing beauty to the mundane.
Through them, she also meets Arthur, one of the bell-ringers, a group whose intricate rhythm of pulling on bell ropes is akin to the broderers' aim for perfection and creation of beauty. Arthur's wife hasn't recovered from the death of their son in the war, and while there is an undeniable spark of attraction to Violet, he remains true to his damaged wife. Together, Violet and Arthur walk a tightrope, which calls to mind Chevalier's theme of romance-through-restraint that made her earlier "Girl With a Pearl Earring" a bestseller.
Violet is an appealing woman; you root for her happiness as she manages a difficult parent, quirky friends, an unsettling pursuer and the prospect of a single life. Of particular interest is how Chevalier weaves in a relationship between two women, casting it against the social mores of the times and the path they must contrive to be true to themselves.
"A Single Thread" succeeds on the basis of its story line, but it's what we learn about bordering and bell-ringing _ who knew? _ that makes this such a pleasantly informing read.