The First World War took everything from her. Her brother, her fiancé – and her future. She is now considered a ‘surplus woman’.
But Violet is also fiercely independent and determined. Escaping her suffocating mother, she moves to Winchester to start a new life –a change that will require courage, resilience and acts of quiet rebellion. And when whispers of another world war surface, she must live with a secret that could change everything…
Comment: I got interested in this book some years ago, mostly because it had a blurb which made me think about a single woman facing obstacles but learning to have a satisfying life at a time women didn't have many options if they wanted to have a fulfilling life. It also helped that, like many others, I have liked reading Girl With a Pearl Earring, the author's most famous work. Then, I convinced my friend H. to buddy read it.
I figured this book might also be a compelling one and the idea of it certainly was. In this book we follow Violet, a 38 year old woman who after WWI is considered a "surplus woman", considering the difference ratio from women and men due to so many lives lost at war. Violet lost her brother and her fiance and her prospects never changed and now she works for a little independence. Her main act of rebellion was to move out of her mother's house so she can have her own life. She care for her mother of course, but she is a difficult woman to please and endure. However, Violet struggles and being independent means she has to go without some things. In an attempt to battle loneliness she attends a service at Winchester cathedral and learns about the "broderers", women who embroider in a specific style. As she decides to join them, she gets something to occupy her time but also a new set of friends and acquaintances, among which bell ringer Arthur, a fascinating but married man. As her existence goes on as quietly as it has always been, will Violet find what she is looking for in life?
I confess I expected something a little more objective when I started the book. I thought the end game would have a more specific goal in mind but this novel is slow paced and it doesn't lead to any thrill seeking scenarios nor does it offer a cute romance or cozy finish for us to feel Violet's life had this big purpose or why she had to go through the problems she had.
I missed a more obvious plot centered story, that's a fact. It felt as if things were being said, Violet was doing this and that dealing with feelings, with what others did/caused around her and I thought, certainly there is a reason why this was included, how can this matter when we get to the climax of the story or for how it's going to end? After all, there didn't seem to exist an end game and this was truly only an episode on Violet's quiet life and how what she faced must have been what so many other women in the 1920s and 1930s lived through.
In terms of historical content, I can't say I fault what the author chose to include, and I did learn a lot about this time period, this specific situation between wars and how society still judges some social groups over situations out of their control. It was also interesting to learn other things, which I confess I never thought about, namely how specific are the sounds of bells, how they work, also the embroiders and why some patterns were chosen, how the specific type of embroider mentioned in the novel is different from others, and the most obvious detail which I didn't know anyway, Jane Austen is buried at Winchester cathedral. It made me want to google it and see images.
Violet is a fascinating woman, for certain. She has her own mind, she is strong and clever but she is still forced to certain behaviors because of society and her time. Looking at examples like these, especially in fiction books with a drama tone, one can wonder how those women who thought for themselves coped, pushed behind a set of rules which they could not escape if they wanted to maintain their reputations and the friendship/respect of their closest friends and family. Violet isn't the only example in this book of this subject and the author, again, left a lot of food for thought. I also think her personality isn't always showed in the best light. Her acts of rebellion, while understandable, made me think the goal was to present some of the most unfair aspects of women like her, and not a truly likable, if still fictional, heroine.
However, it felt as if Violet's path had no way to run. Her choice of friends, the options she makes to keep her sanity and self respect can be seen differently depending on the perspective, but the actual actions she does, the choices she makes while the story unfolds can seem too stagnated. At the same time, what could she do? But I imagined the plot would have a more specific purpose, that something more satisfying, more definitive would happen to Violet, something that would reveal to her a path she would be happy with. I suppose some readers would say this happened, that this was accomplished with a surprising twist at the very end, but I still feel there was some build of expectations and as if something else would happen and in the end, it didn't.
I think the overall effect of how this was written made me think the pace was a bit too slow most of the time. I don't mind this but I kind of would have liked seeing something different, something to make Violet feel she would be gaining so much more than she did. Her frame of mind never really improved, and if not romantically - which could be too convenient perhaps - at least I hoped her friendships with the other embroiders and the sense of community she gained would have touched her life in an even more decisive way. She found some happiness in life in the end, but at the still expense of some bitterness over things she could not change.