Ann Hood works through her grief in The Knitting Circle
You know the characters of a book have seeped into your soul when their emotions spark similar feelings in you. And you realize how gripping the narrative has become when you must skip ahead to find out what happens. Both of these reactions are hallmarks of “a good read,” of fiction that really spins its magic, and both are present in Ann Hood’s The Knitting Circle.
THE MANY STRANDS in the novel are connected with minimal sentimentality.
The book is structured around 10 knitting lessons, beginning with casting on (to get the yarn onto the needles) and ending with casting off. One of two chapters inside each of these sections focuses on an individual’s story — the main character Mary at the beginning and end, each of the six women in her knitting circle, a former member of the group, and Mary’s mother Mamie — and the other chapter on the knitting circle itself.
When the novel opens, fortysomething Mary is seven months into the shock and depression of having lost her only child, five-year-old Stella, to meningitis. Her boss at the alternative paper for which she writes leaves her long messages to entice her back to work. Her lawyer husband tries to draw her into social situations. Her mother calls frequently from Mexico, urging her to visit and to take up knitting. After the owner of a Sakonnet knit shop also leaves her a message, Mary finally makes her way to the shop and, a bit later, to the knitting circle.
Through her eyes, we are introduced to Alice, the knit shop owner; Scarlet, who runs a French bakery; Lulu, a Goth-looking glassblower; Southern-accented Ellen in an old-fashioned house dress; prim-and-proper Harriet, with her salt-and-pepper hair; and suburban matron Beth, with perfect make-up and perfect pictures of her four children. Outside the circle, each one teaches her a particular stitch or pattern as they unfold the story of how they came to be knitters and how, as Scarlet tells her at the first session, “knitting can save your life.”
Though Mary’s first impressions of the women (and of Roger, the former circle member) contain a kernel of their truth, each person is fleshed out as they relate their stories — of lost love and vanished innocence, of sickness and death in their families, of perseverance in the face of loss, of courage and forgiveness, of the friendship they’d found in the knitting circle and, perhaps even more important to their healing, the support they’ve learned to give to others. Twined within those stories is the knitting itself: Lulu’s hats, Ellen’s socks, Beth’s pint-sized sweaters for her children, Roger’s afghan, Scarlet’s shawls.
Beyond the circle of knitters, Mary must find a way to make her marriage work, to return to her writing, to put up with the foibles of her colleagues at the newspaper office, and to forge a relationship with her mother. She must walk through the darkest moments of her grief — sometimes more than a year after the event, Mary learns — and she must reach a point where memories of her daughter can bring her comfort more than pain and where she can reach out to help other people and see herself as a person again.
Even though Hood has many strands to knit together in this variegated novel — the ravages of grief in her main character and the survival skills of each knitter — she does so with minimal sentimentality. Though Mary’s husband remains a bit flat and though a couple of plot elements seem a bit too neatly tied up, the reader is glad for the latter “happy endings” after experiencing so much of the characters’ pain.
The Knitting Circle | by Ann Hood | W.W. NORTON | 384 pages | $25
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