A new novel by Rosy Thornton is generally a cue for rejoicing in the blog world. On the one hand there are very few people who don’t appreciate the tender warmth of her writing, and on the other, we rather pride ourselves on discovering talent that is shamefully overlooked in the mainstream book world. Rosy Thornton really ought to be known to a much wider audience, but I think this omission is due to the tedious but inevitable categorization process that guides marketing departments. On paper, her books are classified as romances, and on one level they are. But I think they have an ethical depth to them that transcends genre, in which her characters are continually pondering what constitutes a good life, how virtue might be made livable, how to reconcile urgent personal desires with the sacrifices demanded by children, work and the wider family. Her latest novel, The Tapestry of Love, is no different.
This is the story of Catherine Parkstone, divorced for some time now, with children who have grown and are embarking on their own lives. Recognising this for the last chance it is, Catherine decides to make a life-changing move to the Cévennes area in France, a beautiful, remote mountainous region that she knows from childhood holidays. Once there, she has a plan to set up a business dealing in soft furnishings, tapestry in particular. Of course, this move does not go smoothly at first: it rains, a lot. The people are kind but insular, the administrative requirements for her business are complex, and then there are all those once-fierce attachments she has left behind. Her son and daughter (the latter in particular carving a hilarious career path through the specialist interest journals) and her mother, now confined to a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. Like all women who have been the lynch pin of a family, Catherine has to work at adjusting to their reduced need of her, and the fear that moving away might distance her from what loving relationships remain. Also, and significantly, there is one neighbour who appeals to her particularly, the elusive and (naturally) enigmatic Patrick Castagnol, with his cultured tastes and inexplicably good English. Just as Catherine’s friendship with him looks like it might assume a different hue, her sister, high-powered lawyer Bryony, turns up for a holiday and steps lightly but firmly into the one opening for romantic interest. And Catherine, used to putting the desires of others before her own, stands aside and lets her.
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.