"The Knitting Circle"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage FEB 1, 2007)
On a whim, I had stopped at a yarn store near Denis’s apartment and bought a skein of light blue mohair and a pair of bamboo knitting needles. As the industrial cities passed my window, and cypress trees appeared beside barren fields of wheat and flowers, I knit. My hands seemed to knit away the noise that had kept me awake, to erase the questions for which there were no answers.
After the sudden death of her five-year-old daughter, Stella, Rhode Island writer Mary Baxter finds herself unable to function. With the funeral over, Mary’s long days stretch endlessly into a depressing empty future without Stella. Although Mary’s many friends and workmates try to reach out and help her--constantly phoning and dropping by to see her--Mary avoids them all and feels alone with her pain. The fact that Mary’s relationship with her mother, Mamie, is less than perfect, doesn’t help either, and Mary notes, through a haze of pain, that Mamie, a former alcoholic, doesn’t stay for the funeral but instead returns to her self-imposed exile in Mexico. Stella’s death, in some ways, accentuates Mary’s problems with Mamie. Mary feels that “her mother had disappointed her for her entire life” and she can remember crucial moments growing up when Mamie failed in her role as a mother. Consequently, when Mary gave birth to Stella, she “promised” that she “was going to be the mother she’d always wished for.”
And Mary keeps her promise to Stella, building her entire world around this precious, happy little girl, and Stella has--in essence--the perfect childhood--a wonderful home with loving, attentive parents. But that isn’t enough to stave off the cruelty of sudden death, and Stella dies leaving her devoted, grief stricken parents behind in a world full of memories of her joyful presence. Mary’s husband, Dylan, is wrapped in grief too, but he manages to get up and go to work every day at his law practice, and he copes. Mary and Dylan are both encased in their separate cocoons of grief, and consequently they are unable to help each other through their pain. Gradually they begin to drift apart, and Mary admits in her most honest moments that they were beginning to experience trouble when Stella’s birth sealed their small family together.
As Mary wades through her fog of grief--barely able to feed herself regularly--she receives a phone call--an invitation from “Big Alice.” Alice--who in reality is a calm diminutive British woman--runs a knitting shop called “Big Alice’s Sit and Knit.” Mamie has previously suggested that Mary take up knitting as a hobby, and Mary has memories of her mother endlessly knitting while ignoring the world around her. Reluctantly, but with the idea that she really has nothing better to do, Mary joins the knitting group which meets every Wednesday night at Alice’s shop. Here’s she’s just one of several women (and one man) there who’ve learned to knit and cope with the crises in their lives. As a fellow knitter notes to Mary, at first “you knit to save your life.” And gradually over time, Mary gets to know her fellow knitters and learns their stories of grief and survival. She learns to knit, and she absorbs the soothing qualities and the distracting abilities of knitting.
The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood is a warm novel that explores relationships between women based on shared experience, and each woman’s story is gradually revealed over the course of the novel. There’s Scarlet who runs a successful restaurant in town, artist Lulu who has relocated from New York and reinvented herself in the process, quiet Ellen who waits for a telephone call, Beth—whose seemingly perfect life is based on a remarkable story of the will to survive, and Harriet whose sometimes waspish comments hide a moment of regret. The novel’s strength is found in the fact that Mary is not miraculously and automatically “healed” once she picks up these knitting needles. Hood makes is quite clear that grief is a process that takes place over time —a process that assumes various phases--including relapses--and this theme is quite beautifully weaved into the stories of those in the knitting group. As Alice wisely notes, “In knitting…you can always correct the mistakes” but in life it’s unfortunately more complex and infinitely more painful. Hood’s characters demonstrate that love and grief go hand in hand, and while this novel’s premise had the potential to slip towards maudlin cliches and excessive sentimentality, Hood skillfully and elegantly veers away from such devices and instead offers the reader a triumphantly beautiful story that offers solace, demonstrates healing and soars with the strength of the human spirit. If you’ve ever loved and lost, or if you understand the magical qualities of knitting, then chances are that you’ll appreciate this novel.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Somewhere off the Coast of Maine (1987)
- Waiting to Vanish (1988)
- Three-Legged Horse (1989)
- Something Blue (1991)
- Places to Stay the Night (1993)
- The Properties of Water (1995)
- Ruby (1998)
- An Ornithologist's Guide to Life : Stories (2004)
- The Knitting Circle (January 2007)
- The Red Thread (May 2010)
- Creating Character Emotions (1998)
- Do Not Go Gentle: My Search for Miracles ina Cynical Time (1999)
- Comfort: A Journey Through Grief (May 2008)
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- Official website for the Ann Hood
- US Today article on Ann Hood
- Boston.com review of The Knitting Circle
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About the Author:
Ann Hood was born in West Warwick, Rhode Island in 1956.
After graduating with honors in English from URI in 1978, Hood traveled the world as a flight attendant for TWA for nearly eight years. During that time, she earned her master’s degree from New York University, wrote her first book, and sold it for publication. When TWA went on strike and the flight attendants were all "replaced", Ann found herself suddenly a full time writer.
Hood’s short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Glimmer Train, Double Take, The Missouri Review, The Washington Post, Traveler, Bon Appetit, and many other publications. She has won a Best American Spiritual Writing Award, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Paul Bowles Prize for Short Fiction.
On April 18, 2002, her five year old daughter Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep. Ann was unable to read or write for two years and began to fear she would never write again. During that time she learned how to knit. So she took writer Grace Paley's advice to: Write what you don't know about what you know and wrote the autobiographical novel, The Knitting Circle.
Ann lives in Providence, Rhode Island with husband and their children.