The Tapestry Shop is an imaginative fictional reconstruction of the life of Adam de la Halle, an early trouvère, or medieval minstrel, living in and around Arras in northern France in the mid-13th century. He was best known for his lighthearted play "Robin et Marion," which may have given rise to the later legends of Robin Hood. Although I hadn't been familiar with Adam or his work beforehand, the storyline drew me right into his world.
As with tapestries themselves, the novel stretches out over a wide canvas but relies on its finer details to create a beautifully woven portrait of medieval life. Its plot moves with a lively yet steady pace that suits it well. I found myself enjoying every minute of my virtual stroll through many French towns and cities, taking in the sights while following the hero and heroine on their travels.
On his journey home to Arras after a four-month exile in Douai - he had offended the wrong people with his satirical lyrics - Adam takes a detour to the village of Vitry-en-Artois, where he becomes enraptured by a lovely young woman working at her father's tapestry shop. Catherine Durant, upset over her recent betrothal to a man with a hidden cruel streak, feels attracted to Adam as well, though she knows a future with him is impossible. He's trapped in a broken marriage, and even though his wife is unfaithful, he refuses to force the issue. Medieval people had harsh punishments for adulterous women.
Neither Adam nor Catherine ever forgets the other, though this isn't a typical romance; the plot follows too unpredictable of a path for that. Both are likeable and sympathetic, and while some of the dilemmas they face are timeless (in addition to his romantic woes, Adam suffers from writers' block), others reflect the particular milieu. Feudalism keeps peasants and landowners in their places, and women are given only as much freedom as their husbands or male relatives permit. Catherine's piety determines the decisions she makes, sometimes to the detriment of her happiness, but this felt realistic for the time and place.
Using clear language that turns quite lyrical in places, the novel had me hearing the clacking of wheels as they passed over cobblestone streets, tasting the delicious tarts sold by street vendors, and seeing the glory of the sun light up the forest in early morning. I especially liked my visit to the Cold Fair at Troyes, an exciting gathering of craftsmen, buyers, and entertainers from all over.
There are a few errant threads - some scenes that were a little quirky - but not enough to detract from the overall picture. In its focus on the daily lives of artisans and musicians rather than the glamour of the royal court, The Tapestry Shop is refreshingly different from other novels set in medieval France. The author's close attention to detail made the era come alive, creating a historical setting I'd loved to have seen in person. Since that's not possible, alas, I'll happily recommend this book as an entertaining and enlightening alternative.
The Tapestry Shop was published by Five Star in October at $25.95 (hardbound, 326pp). For more information on her research sources as well as other diversions, visit Joyce Moore's blog. (Cover design credit to Deirdre Wait, High Pines Creative, ENC Graphic Services.)