Rosy Thornton’s The Tapestry of Love
Headline Books, 2010.

Whether it was the cover image, or the title, or vague impressions gathered from other readers before I settled on reading this novel, I’m not sure: somehow I picked up the idea that this is a romance novel.

And, sure, the story does have romantic elements, but to my mind it’s much more about the ways in which Catherine gets reacquainted with the familiar aspects of her self when she is surrounded by the unfamiliar.

It is a quality novel, and I would rather it was covered with an artsy image of the view from the outlook to which Catherine often hikes, near her new home in France, in the Cévennes mountains.

Something that still evokes the rusticity of the French countryside — because the setting is a vitally important part of the story — but with a sense of openness, not a closed door with a curtain drawn.

That image, to this reader’s mind, would have better suited a representation of Catherine’s life in Buckinghamshire, England which she has chosen to leave behind.

Les Fenils, which is nestled against the mountainside, with its terrace courtyard and small orchard and wooded hillside, is about expanse.

Perhaps Catherine doesn’t leave her door gaping open, but she has the sense of being surrounded by space. And that’s just what she seems to crave. Even though (perhaps because) she’s not entirely comfortable with it either.

Of course when readers meet Catherine, she is in a very confined space. She is seated in her car, surrounded by sheep, who are spilling down the hillside and around and past the vehicle.

The car “split the sheep the way rocks split flowing river water”. It’s the transhumance, the twice-yearly movement of livestock, heading down to the valley, preparing for the winter, and up past the tree line, preparing for the summer.

It’s a lovely image, setting the scene for finding a balance between rooting yourself and still being able to cope with change and all the demands that come as you move through life, different facets of your identity coming to the fore as-needed.

But Catherine’s soul-searching is operating on a more intuitive level; she deliberately sets aside an inner philosophical debate about what it means that she is travelling in an unnatural direction — contrary to the four-legged travellers — and simply goes on about her business.

Other characters in the novel face more deliberate alterations in the trajectories of their lives.

Particularly Catherine’s daughter, Lexie, a young working woman, who wearies of writing for specialized trade publications that seem to offer the promise of challenging work at the outset but then their environments become monotonous and insular.

Also questioning choices she has made in her life is Catherine’s sister, Bryony, whose career leaves her “always knackered”, at a loss in the brief pockets of time which whisper that different choices might leave her less knackered.

See, I had read the title as being about a romantic love, but these other relationships are pivotal to the decisions that Catherine has made/is making. The tapestry is more varied than I anticipated (which for me, as a reader, made the novel that much more interesting).

Other plot developments raise the question of how we respond to changes that are not chosen, particularly in regards to aging. This is raised not only in terms of Catherine’s mother, still in England and suffering from dementia, but in the community that Catherine has joined, at least geographically.

She is still, however, ever-conscious of her separate-ness. She describes herself at one point as being heavy with the consciousness of being alone. While that’s not strictly accurate, from the outside at least, objectively, the community there is small.

“Four houses, with two more up the hill in the woods; a vegetable garden and a few rabbit hutches. That this should be the full compass of a woman’s existence for seventeen years was almost beyond imagining — and made Catherine suddenly conscious of how far she was an outsider.”

Anyway, the restructuring that’s going on in Catherine’s head is not external, and it’s not really about her relationships with her neighbours (which is not to say that they do not come to play significant roles as the pages turn), but about her existing familial relationships.

What does it mean to be a daughter when your mother no longer recognizes you; what is your responsibility as that daughter and does that involve visiting her more than once a year?

What does it say about you when you find yourself pleased to think of your ex-husband alone for a holiday, and what happens with that anger that has quietly simmered for years?

In this sense, Catherine’s story, for all that its outward trappings are about what is unfamiliar to her, is a familiar one for readers. Finding — or re-configuring– one’s place in the world, whether at 20-something or 40-something, is a readily recognizable quest.

The novel is written in an easy and comfortable style, which one could certainly enjoy on a weekend getaway to a guest-house with a door just like the one pictured on the book’s cover, complete with baguettes.

But that’s not quite the way I read it. There’s a little more here, and although I appreciate the sense of a simple heartwarming story, it was the bits of complexity that surface which made The Tapestry of Love an enjoyable read for me.

Because it would have been a miss, as well, to have put a single heroine with her city clothes and sunglasses overlooking some grand mountain-view on the cover of this one. Readers looking for a quiet country read, or Hollywood-star-transformed tale, are going to be disappointed with this one (I think).

Not only does it open with a scene of transhumance (which, even if Catherine doesn’t want to think about it, does have a symbolic importance to her journey), but there is talk of Dickens and Zola, and the Bayeux Tapestry.

There’s just enough of that to make a reader who is more accustomed to reading literary fiction comfortable, and none of the commercially-styled prose that would make straight romance- and beach-fiction readers feel at-home.

Also there is a sense of bookish intelligence dabbed throughout the prose which is not typical for “light reading”.

For fun, when I saw the word ‘crestfallen’, one of my favourite words, I thought I would note the words that I was (pleasantly) surprised to discover in Catherine’s narrative, but I soon stopped with the notes; I hadn’t realized just how many there were.

Were this a beach-read, or a straight romance novel, you would be unlikely to read this, which I’ve cobbled together from the jottings on my word-list:

“Our hero was crestfallen, shrugged, moved desultorily to the rimed window, where lassitude settled on his shoulders like a tarpaulin; it made him churlish, unwontedly prone to dissent, and he envisaged himself turning a hue of crimson.”

No, nothing like that in an easy weekend read. Instead it would be something like this:

“Our hero was disappointed, shrugged, moved sulkily to the frosted window, where fatigue settled on his shoulders like a tarp; it made him edgy, unusually argumentative, and he imagined his face getting red.”

Please forgive the fun I’ve had making my sentence; had I not spotted ‘crestfallen’, I might not even have noticed this aspect of the storytelling!

Still, upon reflection, I think the vocabulary was one of the subtle elements of the prose style that made it possible to enjoy this alongside the other books in my stack that week (including Margaret Atwood, Marina Endicott, and Alice Walker).

A lighter choice, perhaps, but still a smart choice.

An investment in the characters (even in those to whom I never got very close, geographically or otherwise), a beautiful setting that reflects the novel’s theme (I especially love the market scenes), and a satisfying narrative arc: The Tapestry of Love would make a fine addition to your bedside table.

Would you like your copy with or without baguettes?