I love the film of How to Make an American Quilt, I love to quilt, and I greatly enjoy reading about women’s experiences of life. So reading the book behind one of my favourite films and one that compares quilting to the complicated emotional lives of women was something I was very excited about. I’ve been having a bit of a reading slump lately – I’m missing my own bulging bookcase of unread middlebrow mid century British fiction, and everything I brought with me/have acquired to read is very earnest and literary and intense. I am so tired most of the time these days that as much as I would love to plough my way through, say, Moby Dick, or ponder the injustice of the treatment of American Indians by reading I Buried my Heart at Wounded Knee, at the moment I just don’t have the stamina. I wanted something I could relate to, something that would interest me, and that would be just a little bit cosy. So I picked up How to Make an American Quilt on my most recent trip to the library. I was expecting to be wrapped up in a warm quilt of Southern drawled cheesy romance with a hint of feminist overtones, but I didn’t get what I expected. Whitney Otto’s novel is very different to the film; more intellectual, certainly, and also less romantic, coherent, and well characterised. It’s very good, but I have to say, I did prefer the film to the book. It’s not very often you’ll hear me say that!
Unlike the film, while the story is narrated by Finn, Winona Ryder’s character, she is not the centre of the novel and we hear little about her own life. Instead, she functions as nothing but a vessel through which the stories of the women in her grandmother and great aunt’s quilting circle are told. Each of the women’s stories are prefaced by a short chapter on quilting methods and patterns, woven with historical details that provide further context for the eras each of the women have lived through. These instructions also have metaphorical relevance for each of the stories that follow them, with the different types of stitching and patterns described providing a deeper meaning for each women’s approach and experience to life. Despite living in a quiet backwater in California, each of the women have rich, fascinating and often painful stories to tell about love, hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Hidden beneath the exterior of their humdrum, uneventful lives in tiny Grasse, ‘near Bakersfield’, are souls that have seen and experienced more than Finn could ever have imagined.
The premise of the novel is to explore the different facets of women’s lives, the unpredictable nature of the heart, and the many ways in which humans love, as Finn works out what love is, and whether she can commit to her fiance Sam. The stories each of the women tell, about infidelity, bereavement, bitterness, jealousy, grief, abandonment, an inability to commit and a fear of losing their own identity, were heartrending in their honesty, and in their regret. Love has the power to destroy as much as it does to enrich, and some women gave their hearts wisely, and were blessed by their choices, while others were left embittered and alone with their shattered dreams.
What I found most interesting about the novel was how the love lives of each woman were intrinsically entwined with their identities. Their lives had been built around the men they had loved, and still loved in some cases, dictating their actions, forging the paths they took, and forming their personalities and outlook on life. Sophia, abandoned by her husband and betrayed by the dreams they once had, grows a bitter heart. Marianna, abandoned by her father, cannot commit to loving a man. Glady Joe, having never experienced the heights of passion her husband does, retreats into an indifferent and prickly cocoon. Hy, loving and loved, is scarred by the death of her husband. The centre point of these women’s lives, the thing they all revolve around, is love, or the lack of it. Without love, they would be nothing. It reigns supreme over all of them, and maps out the stories of their lives. Most of the women have achieved little for themselves, and have lived lives surrendered to the wishes and dreams of their husbands or lovers, living small lives in a a small town. They have regrets, and these are often painful to confront, but in the telling of their stories, like The Girls from Winnetka, they can come to a peace with themselves, and their own unruly hearts. Love is painful, but it is also healing, and forgiving. This capacity to love against the odds is what makes each of these women’s stories extraordinary, and I was left in awe of how much the human heart has to give, and how close it can come to destroying itself in the process.
This is a short novel, with only brief windows into the lives of each of the women in Glady Joe’s quilting circle. It is powerful, and profound, and has an individuality to it that I enjoyed. However, it was too lacking in spirit to make me love it. I wanted the story to be the same as the film. The film’s strong story line of Finn working out what she wants from her life through hearing the many and varied dreams and disappointments of these elderly women in her grandmother’s quilting group has a romance and a completeness that I love, and go back to time and again. I was disappointed that the book lacked any insight into Finn at all, and failed to connect the women well enough to bring across the bonds of friendship and kinship that the film oozes from its very pores. In its artful composition, in its clever metaphors and feminist discourse, the book loses the warmth the film portrays, and instead, becomes a slightly too clinical exploration of the human heart. I found it a shame, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, that the book doesn’t follow the film’s storyline. I think then it would be a much deeper and more profound reading experience. As it stands, it’s still an excellent read, but don’t expect the cosy rocking chair on the porch style story that you see in the film. Perhaps if I had have had different expectations, I would have enjoyed it more. Sadly, I’ll never know!