What’s not to like about The Tapestry of Love? It’s undemanding and charming, while also being thoughtful and literate. Along with Thornton’s Hearts and Minds, it now numbers among the little cluster of books I think of as my ‘comfort reading,’ books that I reread when I want to wander mentally away from home without feeling adrift, to be distracted without being distraught or dismayed–books, too, that always bring me home again, quietly, rather than leaving me staring wistfully over the horizon. I am sure I will reread The Tapestry of Love more than once in the years to come.
Like Anne Tyler (whose Ladder of Years is a longstanding comfort read), Thornton has an astute sense of character–of what makes people distinctly themselves–but also of relationships and how they challenge (or, more rarely, reinforce) that individualism. The story of Tapestry of Love is simple enough, perhaps even clichéd: a divorced Englishwoman pursues her dream by moving to a cottage in the Cévennes and setting up her own business, including making the tapestries that provide the novel’s underlying metaphor (and, obviously, its title). Though she doesn’t go in search of romance, inevitably (by fictional, not real standards) she finds it. But its development is hampered by her own reserve, by her more flamboyant sister, and by the complications of being both grown up and divorced already, and thus under no illusions about fairy-tale endings. Filling in this simple outline are details and anecdotes–sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant–about life in this rural community, told in prose that is precise, evocative, and unsentimental.
I first heard about Rosy Thornton from the review of The Tapestry of Love at Tales from the Reading Room. Litlove speaks so well about the book that I’m going to quote her at some length rather than try to find another way to say something that wouldn’t end up being very different (it’s not lazy, it’s appreciative!):
There are two preoccupations in this delicate novel that stand out in particular. The first is the exquisite nature writing that brings France alive on every page. I don’t recommend you pick up this book if you have a deep hankering to move to the south of France because you’ll find you’ve booked a ticket before the end is reached. Catherine is an observer, a practiced witness to lives that are more vivacious than her own, and her profound attention to the consoling beauty of the world around her is completely convincing. But at the same time, this attentiveness to the natural world has another purpose, in that it emphasizes the cycle of life in which all the characters are trapped. I found this to be the most poignant of Rosy’s books so far, the one most concerned with loss and how it might not perhaps be managed, but eventually accepted, or soothed with other distractions. The cycle of family life, with its need to find partners, to raise children, to let go of the adults they become as well as the parents who raised us in their time, is the underlying trajectory of the plot. Catherine is at the time of her life when there are too many goodbyes, and to add to that, she has chosen to leave her homeland and all its familiarity behind. But Catherine is a sensible, grounded woman, a woman whose work matters to her as much as her romantic life, a woman who knows what needs to be done and will do it, even if it requires unreasonable selflessness. And she is also a hopeful woman, one who believes without needing to say it, that tomorrow will bring fresh opportunities and new chances. Her resolute strength of character and her belief in the process of renewal carry her (and the reader) through adversity and to the optimistic ending you long for her to have.
There’s also a lot of wry humour in the book, about the French bureaucratic system (which deserves to have fun poked at it), and about sibling relationships. It’s a wonderful portrait of two sisters, and it was probably this relationship I appreciated most in the novel. There’s always a great core of strength at the heart of Rosy’s novels and this comes from her celebration of love over the false friends that are need, desire, lust and romance. Unlike other genre writers, who turn love into Sturm und Drang or emotional pyrotechnics, Rosy portrays love more realistically (and therefore surprisingly), as presence, awareness, mindfulness, and also as acceptance of people exactly as they are. This makes her books less outwardly dramatic than some, but reassuringly, resolutely real and immensely comforting. The Tapestry of Love is about the gentle warp and weft of relationships, the tracing of a thousand threads of attachment into patterns that please and console. In this way it’s a novel that leaves the romance genre some way behind, and deserves a categorization all of its own.
You can see from this why I was prompted to look up Rosy Thornton for myself (and why I like Tales from the Reading Room so much, too). I was delighted to learn from Thornton’s author page that her career as a novelist grew out of her enthusiasm for Gaskell’s North and South (and I would just like to say “I hear that!” to her comment about Richard Armitage in the role of John Thornton). I haven’t read her other two novels yet, including the first one in which, she says, the influence of North and South is particularly evident, but I enjoyed Hearts and Minds very much too–also gently humorous and unassumingly astute. This is the point at which easy access to the Book Depository and its free worldwide shipping becomes dangerous…
A trivial question that lingers: There are all kinds of novels about the English abroad, yearning for sunshine, or for a society fondly imagined to be somehow more open, emotional, or authentic–like A Room with a View, to give just one more famous example. Do folks in Italy or the south of France ever dream of (and write novels about) holidays in England? I suppose if they do, it would be out of yearning for something other than the weather.
Well, um, have you read Passing Time by Michel Butor (1959 or so)?
The French protagonist is in England for work, not a holiday, and only dreams of escaping from England, but, um, otherwise, close, right?
Oh, and it’s a mystery novel, sort of, as French “New Novels” go – you can use it in your class!
I return to ‘Hearts and Minds’ on a regular basis. I don’t know the extent to which it reflects life in Canadian Universities, but there are moments when it is so accurate about the tribulations of working in the UK system that it hurts.
Haven’t read this but sounds good. I liked ‘Hearts and Minds’ and anything by Anne Tyler. All somehow have a Jane Austen ‘feel’ [whatever that means], I think, as I’m rereading ‘Emma’ at present. Have you read Salley Vickers, particularly her first ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’? It’s very good in my opinion. But it’s English woman goes to Venice, not the other way round!
@AR: Never heard of it! Yes, it’s easier somehow to imagine dreaming of escape from England than escape to England, unless we move into a different kind of fiction altogether.
@Annie: I think some aspects of university life are more or less the same everywhere, but there are peculiarities about the UK system, or at least its older incarnations, that probably seem familiar to me only because I’ve read other fiction set at Oxbridge. Plus, of course, I’ve read David Lodge (speaking of whom, I enjoyed your post about him–I wonder if he’ll speak at the British Association of Victorian Studies meeting at Birmingham in September, which I hope to attend!)
@Bookboxed: Thanks for the Sally Vickers recommendation; I’ll keep my eyes open.
I loved this one too, and hadn’t thought about rereading it, but you are right that it would make a good comfort reread whenever I need one. She strikes just the right note of being undemanding, as you say, and also smart and complex enough to be interesting.
Bless you for quoting me! I love Rosy’s writing because it is so honest and astute. I must say I have never read a French novel in which the characters head off to the English seaside! I will keep an eye out for one.
I don’t know Rohan, but we will be meeting up for tea won’t we?
Annie, I’d love to! I don’t know for sure if I’ll be able to go (funding for conference travel is getting pretty limited) but I really hope so. I’ll let you know!
Richard Armitage will forever be Mr. Thorntorn. 😀 I first saw him in the North and South miniseries DVD and have loved him since then. 😀
I have my fingers firmly crossed and the dates in my diary.