The novel tells the story of two sisters, closely bonded as a result of their often difficult childhood, whose lives are balanced on the cusp of change. When Margot leaves her glamorous New York City life and visits her sister Lacey in New Hampshire one Thanksgiving, Lacey surprises her by sharing that she's just been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a disease which affects language and speech. The degeneration of Lacey's communication skills may take several years or only months to show; because of the relatively small amount of research on the topic and its close connection to dementia, even experts are unable to predict the disease's progression from one patient to another.
Although Lacey is the one faced with the loss of her ability to communicate, Davis focuses her attention on other family members and their responses to this pending crisis. Margot withdraws from her life in New York with artist Oliver and tries to keep her sister's family together by flying in at the smallest request from her brother-in-law Alex or one of her sister's twin daughters. Alex distances himself from his wife and turns to Margot and a week they once shared together as teenagers. The twins react differently to this news of their mother's illness; Wink, the more introverted twin, tries to abandon her life to stay close to her mother, while Toni rebels -- sneaking out with her older boyfriend and fighting constantly with Lacey. While the news of Lacey's illness affects her family members in different ways, the devastation that comes with the sudden possibility of losing her is evident in each.
Davis turns what could have been a highly sentimental, overly sappy storyline into a novel full of grace as she examines the human spirit. She employs art as a second form of communication, rather than simply relying on written words to do the storytelling. Each character tells not only his or her story in words, but also through the art forms each chooses. Lacey has always been a weaver, and continues to weave her feelings out of cloth and yarn; Margot returns to the long-abandoned paintings she once loved; Oliver, affected only from outside the family, through his loss of Margot, finds new life his art, as well; and Alex, not truly an artist, finds relief in the physical outlet of cycling.
Davis also includes pertinent flashbacks within the novel's pages. Inserted smoothly, at random times throughout the novel, these glimpses of the past offer deeper meaning to the characters' current reactions. Davis shows that family ties are not surface ones, but deep threads that weave us tightly together.
I loved the inclusion of weaving terms and definitions in A Slender Thread. Each chapter begins with one of these, so that the theme of family being woven together over time resonates in the reading. A few of my favorites:
- Shed (Chapter 10): Open space between upper and lower warp threads.
- Tenterhooks (Chapter 6): The hooks on a tenter, the framework for stretching wool to prevent shrinkage after it has been washed. When one is under tension, one is "on tenterhooks."
- Texere (Chapter 16): Latin for "to weave," from which the English word "text" is derived.
Sense of place is also an important element in the novel. Davis connects location to emotion, a very real connection in my mind. There is the vacation spot, Bow Lake, where Alex, Margot, and Lacey all spent summers as children; New York City, where all bustles and creativity abounds; San Francisco and Sonoma, where Oliver finds peace; and New Hampshire, where Lacey's family and Margot feel a strong sense of home. In an interview at the novel's end, Davis states that:
we all have a 'Bow Lake' in our lives -- whether it's a far-off vacation place or your grandmother's back porch where you went to escape now and then as a child. Bow Lake is one of those nostalgic places from our childhood when everything seemed simple and perfect. . . . [It] represents the longing one might have for an idealized time or place. . . . [W]hen the future seems threatening, one has the tendency to look back and seek solace in what seemed like easier times.
I believe we all have those places in our lives; Davis hits the nail on the head when she also says that "[o]ften when we do return to a place we loved long ago, we find that it is no longer the same at all." Not to say it is worse; only that it is different, and that places that affected us deeply long ago may not affect us later -- or may simply have a different effect on us at a different time.
Davis is also the author of Capturing Paris (2006) and East Hope (2009), winner of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance 2010 Award for Fiction. She is currently at work on her next novel, set in Italy in 1969. Learn what she is currently reading and join the bookish conversation on her blog, Thursday Thoughts.