Things to Make and Mend by Ruth Thomas
|Things to Make and Mend by Ruth Thomas|
|Genre: Women's Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Fairhead|
|Summary: Two women in their forties, leading very different lives, think back to the days when they were best friends in their teens, and their subsequent parting. Gentle and thought-provoking.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 356||Date: February 2007|
|Publisher: Faber and Faber|
This book appealed to me in some ways right from the start. Sally Tuttle is the main heroine, who works in a sewing and mending shop. She also does serious embroidery in her spare time, and has won a competition. She is in her forties, so she was a teenage schoolgirl in the 1970s; there's a great deal of reminiscing about those days, with little snippets of observation that could have come straight from my own school-days: double needlework; rough books; bizarre conversations about chemistry during unrelated lessons; giggling about words like 'bust-line' on sewing patterns...
Oddly enough, Sally hated needlework at first, making endless and shapeless blousons that nobody in their right mind would wear. She wasn't particularly academic, and came from an impoverished 'working-class' family, yet she was best friends - in the way teenage girls are - with Rowena Cresswell who was middle-class, fairly academic, and reasonably well-off. Sally and Rowena had a serious estrangement, and have not seen or spoken to each other for nearly thirty years. The book gradually unfolds the reason for this, and (inevitably) the meeting that they eventually have.
It felt a bit slow-moving at first; I read a few chapters each evening before falling asleep, but until I was about half-way through there didn't seem to be a whole lot of plot. Still, I enjoyed the gentle style of writing, alternating the present and the past, and also alternating viewpoints. Sally takes up the first few chapters, in the third person, then Rowena takes up the narration for a while, in the first person. I found the switch of person slightly odd at first, and am not entirely sure why it was written this way, but it works well. Perhaps more so than turning both of them into narrators. As the present story moves forward, both characters converging - unknown to each other - on the same place, for entirely different reasons, the past comes to life - mainly in those teenage years when the separation occurred - so that by the time the meeting happens, I felt I knew both the women quite well. I had a lot of sympathy for Sally.
There are several themes explored in the book, which made it quite thought-provoking, including teenage pregnancy, betrayal, honesty, and class differences. I was also impressed that while Sally and Rowena were bound to meet at some point, there were plenty of mild twists and turns to the plot along the way, and even some suspense until they did actually recognise each other. There's also an underlying motif, which I didn't fully understand until I had finished it: one of Sally's current projects is an embroidered picture of the Biblical Mary and Martha. She ponders on the meaning of the story, on Martha's hard work in the kitchen, doing what seemed to be right, while Mary had a good time. Yet Mary turns out to have chosen the better path. As events unfold, and Sally realises there have been some serious misunderstandings, she recognises with some humility (and a fair amount of guilt) that things are not always what they seem.
The book ended rather quickly, I felt; I would have liked a longer period after the meeting, for the two women to reminisce together and understand each other better. But then I like books to have tidy endings, with all loose ends cleared up. This one was rather more open, but still satisfactory - it's a book I shall almost certainly be reading again in a few years.
My thanks to the publisher, Faber and Faber, for sending this book.
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