Two posts ago, I noted my summer wish list. Ask and ye shall receive, friends. Germany’s Top Husband came home with a copy of The Slap and Rosy Thornton pinged me and offered me a review copy of The Tapestry of Love (TTOL), an offer which I did not refuse. A couple of days later, a lovely hardcover arrived in the post from England and I read it immediately.
Here’s my review:
Rosy’s fourth book is a slight departure for her as it is set in France rather than her native England. It tells the story of Catherine Parkstone, who decamps to the Cevennes valley to start a new life. She buys a house called Les Fenils, one side of which is carved out of the grey cevenol granite of the local mountains and she retreats there, to nature, silence, a few friendly neighbours and her great passion in life: needlework.
While TTOL celebrates the joy of the French countryside, it’s not just a bucolic paean. A few things arrive to disrupt Catherine’s peace: scary admin letters from the French authorities, her sister Bryony, on sabbatical from her hectic City job, and a handsome and mysterious neighbour, Patrick Castagnol. When Bryony strikes up a relationship with Patrick, Catherine’s heart is a little stabbed, but she focuses instead on growing her sewing business by day and needle-pointing exquisite tapestries by night. Then, when her mother dies, Catherine returns to England for the funeral and to sort out her belongings. She is faced with a choice: does she stay in England where her two children are or does she return to Les Fenils, the community she has built there – and Patrick?
TTOL is a delicious read. I fell into its pages as into a cool stream on a hot day. Thornton’s sense of place is impeccable, as are her descriptions of the art of needlepoint and the journey of a woman going inside herself to find the strengths that lie there. It is lilting and lovely, and just the thing to read when one has escape in mind.
After I read the book, Rosy Thornton kindly agreed to answer some questions about it and about writing in general. Here’s the interview:
Charlotte: The main protagonist of The Tapestry of Love, Catherine Parkstone, leaves England to start a new life in France. What do you think is the attraction of starting over and what qualities does Catherine have that especially enable her to tackle her new life?
Rosy: I think the attraction of escaping to a new life is probably there in all of us – certainly in me. There are those days when life just seems so complicated: when the web of demands and obligations – work and family, financial and practical – seems almost overwhelming. But actually acting on the urge is a different matter. I am far too risk-averse, I think. I like the safety of the familiar. Plus, Catherine starts her new life on her own. I don’t think I would ever have the courage to do that; I’m too fond of talking and not fond enough of my own company.
C: TToL includes some beautiful descriptions of nature and the passing of the seasons in the Cevennes valley. You clearly have spent some time there. What drew you to the area and inspired you to write about it?
R: To confess the truth, I only ever spent a fortnight’s family holiday in the area, and in high summer. But we did speak to local people while we were there, about the life, and about the rain in autumn, the winter winds. The rest I’ve pieced together from books and from the internet. But it is true that the place made a huge impact on me. My holiday was twenty years ago, but it still retains a very special place in my heart.
C: Catherine is a talented seamstress, but as the novel progresses it becomes evident that she is an artist. How did you research the art of tapestry-making and have you ever been tempted to try it? (I speak as someone who once needle-pointed a cushion cover and loved the contemplative nature of working with needle and thread, but wasn’t patient enough to continue.)
R: Again, I’m afraid I’m no needlewoman – I can barely sew on a button. Nor did I engage in in-depth research. But my mother designs and stitches tapestries (simple ones – nothing on the scale of Catherine’s work). Check out the amazing work some people produce.
C: I have read all your novels and you write about your characters with such affection. When each book is finished, do you find it difficult to say farewell to those characters and would you ever be tempted to bring any back to life in a new novel?
R: It is difficult, sometimes, when I finish a book and have to try to begin the next one, with half my mind – and heart – still caught up in the previous characters and their world. I think it was especially true of TTOL. The house I had built for Catherine to live in, up her secluded French mountain, was my secret bolthole as well. For the nine months or so I was working on the book, I could escape there at the keyboard any time I liked. I really missed that when I finished writing it.
As for sequels, or revisiting the same characters … I don’t think I’d ever want to do that, no. I think each book, when it’s completed to the author’s satisfaction, leaves it inhabitants in the place and time which feels right. Even books which have a slightly open-textured ending (like TTOL) and leave the reader wondering about things … well, those are things I want still to be wondering about, too – not things I want tied down and resolved.
C: Your novels are often about tightly-knit communities (a Cambridge college in Hearts and Minds, a tiny Cevennes hamlet in TTOL, a women’s shelter in More Than Love Letters, a call centre in Crossed Wires). What is it about small communities that lends itself to fiction?
R: I suppose that small communities – closed worlds – lend themselves well to the world of a novel. It limits the scope of what the author has to imagine, allowing that world to be conveyed in depth and detail, and I enjoy doing that. Plus the interactions tend to be intense, where the community is close-knit; everything is amplified, somehow. The political back-stabbing of the dons in Hearts and Minds is a good example, if not necessarily a positive one! But in TTOL the community element is entirely positive. I wanted to explore the process by which people come to belong in a place – how we forge connections and put down roots.
C: You have a busy day job as a Cambridge law lecturer and you are a parent of two. How do you combine that with your writing? Do you ever long to write fulltime?
R: By getting up ridiculously early! I do all my writing (of fiction, that is) before the rest of the family are up: typically from 5.30 to 7am daily. After that, my job and family have my attention for the rest of the day – but the early mornings are my ‘me’ time, my escape to the invented world of my stories.
C: Having ‘met’ you on Litopia, I know that you are especially encouraging to aspiring novelists like myself. Do you have any mentors who have helped you on the path to becoming a novelist?
R: I have also been helped hugely by other authors, published and unpublished, whom I’ve ‘met’ on the internet: on Litopia (though I only discovered it after I was published), but also on WriteWords and in the fanfiction community. And I have a pair of real life friends who have given me great advice: a biographer married to a crime fiction writer. But I’d say my main mentor is my agent, the wonderful Robert Dudley, who turned my first novel from a complete shambles into something publishable, and whose editorial help with every book, and general support, encouragement and hand-holding, is utterly invaluable.
C: People often say to me that one of the ways to train as a novelist is to read, read, read. Who are your favourite authors and what are you reading at the moment?
My favourite authors tend to be women, either classic (Jane Austen, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell), ‘period’ (Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald) or contemporary (Barbara Trapido, Kate Atkinson, Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Mantel, Pat Barker, Salley Vickers, Jane Smiley, E Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, AS Byatt, Anita Desai, Rose Tremain, Ali Smith …) All people who write the kind of books I can only dream of! But I think that’s how we improve as writers. I’m not a big believer in reading only, or even mainly, in one’s own genre. I also like crime fiction – the golden age stuff (Dorothy L Sayers, especially) and now PD James and Donna Leon.
Reading now? Rose Tremain’s Trespass – curiously, also set in ‘my’ Cevennes.