It’s a pretty good recipe for a novel: take a group of attractive characters, subject them to a new kind of pressure, and see what happens. Joanna Trollope has been writing versions of this book for years, and Julia Glass seems set on a pretty similar path. In A Slender Thread, Katharine Davis lays claim to some of the same territory. If it bothers you that the characters are all well-educated, well-spoken, and well-meaning, this is obviously one to avoid. But A Slender Thread is heartfelt and rather wise.
Granted, the premise sounds faintly “Queen for a Day:” Lacey Winkler, the cherished, competent businessman’s wife and mother of twin high school senior daughters, comes down with Primary Progressive Aphasia, a kind of brain dysfunction that robs her of language. Davis is less interested in the medical details, though, than in the emotional ramifications for her family, which includes her younger sister Margot. The action takes place over the course of a year, with flashbacks to the sisters’ youth. Interestingly, Davis made the decision to stay out of Lacey’s consciousness. We see her actions but do not share her thoughts.
Davis moves compassionately and convincingly through the various levels of reaction as characters take turns being selfish or frightened or insightful or all three at once. Bit by bit we find out why the bond between Lacey and Margot is so strong, and why it needs to change. Lacey is a weaver, and Davis makes excellent use of weaving as a plot device as well as a metaphor: at one point Margot “pictured Lacey’s loom across the hall with the threads taut, pulled equally in two directions.” It’s a good description for Margot at that moment.
My one quibble is with pacing. The characters get themselves into various uncomfortable states but Davis relaxes the narrative tension a little too quickly for my taste. It’s not that the psychology is unconvincing, just that I would have liked things to take just a little bit longer toward the end as everyone settles into slightly changed relationships. This one gives up some control, that one takes on more responsibility, another lets go of an old dream. But if you wish a book were a little bit longer, that’s not a bad problem to have.