I was very pleased & surprised to read a comment on my post about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey a few weeks ago. The comment was from Rosy Thornton, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed very much in the past. Rosy kindly offered to send me a copy of her new book, The Tapestry of Love, which is set in the Cevennes region of France where Stevenson & his donkey, Modestine, travelled over a century ago.
Catherine Parkstone is in her late 40s, divorced, her children grown up. She decides to sell her home in England & move to La Grelaudiere in the mountainous Cevennes region. Her family had spent holidays there when she was a child & she wants a complete change & the opportunity to start up in business as a seamstress & upholsterer. The novel follows a year in Catherine’s new life. She arrives as the farmers are bringing their sheep down from the mountains for the winter. Gradually she meets her neighbours, adjusts to the power cuts, the torrential rain, the lack of mobile phone reception & the rhythms of village life. On a walk exploring the countryside, she discovers a property owned by the enigmatic Patrick Castagnol, a businessman who rents out holiday cottages. A man who speaks excellent English, whose accent is subtly different to the other inhabitants, a man has lived all his life in the area except for “university, city life. I came back.” Catherine becomes part of the community, begins taking orders for her soft furnishings, makes friends with the locals & adjusts her life to the rhythms of a vanishing way of life.
The modern world does intrude, even in this remote place. The area is now a National Park & only rural businesses are permitted, which causes problems when Catherine wants to register her business. There are few jobs for the young apart from agriculture & tourism so the farmers watch their children move away. But, as much as Catherine becomes absorbed in this new life in the mountains, she can’t ignore the life she left behind. She worries about her children, self-contained Tom & enthusiastic Lexie. Her mother is in a nursing home with dementia. When her younger sister, Bryony, an overworked lawyer, comes to stay for a few days, Catherine’s old & new lives collide. Bryony makes an immediate connection with Patrick that threatens his growing friendship with Catherine & when Bryony decides to come back to La Grelaudiere for a three month sabbatical, Catherine is disturbed by Bryony’s intrusion into her life.
There’s so much to enjoy in this book. Catherine is a sympathetic character & I loved all the detail of her life in La Grelaudiere. I’m not crafty at all, I can barely sew on a button, but I enjoyed learning a little about upholstery in the way Catherine gradually showed the locals that they needed new curtains or chair covers. Catherine takes on the restoration of a processional banner of St Julien for Pere Amyot, the priest of the local church which leads her to visit a local silk museum with Patrick & learn more about the techniques of medieval tapestry work. She is given a swarm of bees & learns how to keep them & extract their honey. The scene where Catherine tells the bees in time-honoured tradition of a death is very moving.
Catherine’s friendships with her neighbours are so realistic. The farmers & shopkeepers are welcoming but not effusive. This is not a novel in the posh-Londoner-goes-native-in-France-or-Italy-with-comical-villagers style. Catherine’s tact & her obvious talent with the needle are crucial in making a success of her new life. The steps by which Madame Bouschet & Madame Parkstone become Marie-Josephe & Catherine, true friends, are portrayed with almost Victorian restraint & delicacy. Catherine’s relationship with Patrick is similarly restrained. They’re mature people with past lives that they’re not altogether ready to share. I enjoyed this chapter where they have dinner & she realises what a strain it can be to live your whole life in a new language,
There was something liberating about talking her own language for an evening. It was funny how, for all her competence, she never felt entirely her real self when conversing in French… It wasn’t the search for words – or not always or only that. It was more a feeling of everything being filtered, somehow, like communicating through gauze. She almost felt she was speaking a part. But here, in English, it was all so much more direct. What of Patrick, though – was he quite himself, in this language which was not his own?
This scene sums up their relationship for most of the book, warm but wary. It’s like a slow medieval dance, coming together then moving apart. The Tapestry of Love is a really satisfying book. I was excited to be offered my very first review copy & I’m pleased to be able to recommend it so highly.