Rosy Thornton’s delightful romantic comedy Crossed Wires was one of my more pleasant reading surprises in 2009, so I was happy to accept a review copy of her newest book, The Tapestry of Love. This book about a 48-year-old Englishwoman moving to a tiny French village was another wonderful light read, perfect for a cold weekend when I was holed up with bronchitis!
Catherine Parkstone is divorced, with two adult children, and she moves to France to build a new and independent life, earning a living by making and repairing tapestries, cushions, and soft furnishings. As you might imagine, the move is not without complications. Her house lacks a lot of modern conveniences, and the drive up the mountain is treacherous on the best of days. That’s all easy enough to cope with, however, when compared with the interpersonal difficulties. Catherine has the expected minor difficulties navigating French customs and etiquette, but the real challenge is learning to manage her own feelings toward the family she has left behind and the mysterious but charming man who lives near her new home.
I loved Catherine as a character. She just seems so comfortable in her own skin—she’s willing to spend long periods of time alone without fretting, but she’s also able to ask for and give help when needed. There’s a graciousness and ease about her that made her a pleasant person to spend time with. But she still has the same kinds of insecurities that plague even the most seemingly confident people. She has doubts about leaving behind her mother, who has Alzheimer’s and may or may not notice Catherine’s long absence. When she meets Patrick, the charming neighbor, she can’t help but analyze every word they exchange.
Another pleasure of the book is the sense of place. There are long, loving descriptions of the French landscape and of Catherine’s gradual discovery of all the visual and culinary pleasures her new home can provide. But what was especially enjoyable was seeing how finding her place enabled Catherine to find herself. The places where we live shape who we are, and Catherine has found a place that seems to be shaping her into the person she wants to be.
However, even as France gets into her soul, her self-doubts remain. When her sister Bryony visits, those doubts become impossible to ignore, and I started to have doubts about the novel. Bryony is a successful workaholic lawyer living in London, and I started to get the sense that this might be a book that tries to paint urban life as somehow less authentic than rural life. There’s a point, for example, when Bryony asks Catherine about the smell on her farm, and Catherine starts to wax rhapsodic about how it’s real life, something you don’t get in the city. I grew up in the country, and I still love the country, but I don’t find it any more real than urban or suburban life. It’s just different, and different lifestyles suit different people. I wasn’t sure I could bear reading a book in which rural life is raised up as superior to urban life, or where domestic arts are seen as the road to womanly happiness.
As I read on, I saw that Thornton was really doing something more interesting than making a simple contrast between two lifestyles, with one coming out ahead. The contrast is really about the contrast between these two sisters. Once I got past seeing these two women as representatives of a type, I could focus instead on them as individuals and on their relationship with each other. Although the two sisters are close, their relationship isn’t perfect. Because the book is in a third-person limited perspective, we only get Catherine’s view, and Bryony doesn’t always come off well. But as the book goes on, we get glimpses of Bryony’s own troubles and realize that she’s more complex and conflicted than she might initially appear. I really enjoyed watching the ebbs and flows of their relationship.
The romance was probably the least interesting part of the book for me. In fact, the most interesting part of the romance had to do with how it affected Catherine’s relationship with Bryony! I never could quite take to Patrick. He’s definitely the strong silent type, never revealing much about himself, but excelling at drawing out the women he meets. As one character observed, he just seemed too smooth to be believed. I did really enjoy the languid pace the romance took, but I found that I didn’t much care how it turned out.
So as a romance, The Tapestry of Love was not a great success. But as a book about people finding home and becoming who they want to be (and eating excellent food), it’s terrific.