How to Make an American Quilt by Whitney Otto

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!


  1. I could not agree with you more, Rachel. The movie was actually on last night here and I caught the end of it, loving it anew. I found the book lacking when I read it. To me, it read like a book trying to be noticed for a movie. It is a rich story, though, isn’t it?

    Sometimes, I think, we just need to read what calls to us. Otherwise, we grow resentful of the books at hand. I go through different book reading moods from time-to-time. This summer I needed to read children’s books about the rural south. I didn’t know I needed to read them. They just kept finding me. When we moved here, I was without bookshelves for a couple of years. When Tom finished this den/library and the shelves were complete, I was up most of the night arranging my friends on the shelves, until they were just where they needed to be. What was especially fun was that I rediscovered some old pals who had been hiding from me for a long while.

    1. What a coincidence, Penny! I really feel like watching the movie now…when I get paid, I might have to order it!

      It’s such a shame as the book’s essential storyline is so full of potential, and I feel the film makes more of the women’s lives and the complicated relationships they have with each other than the book does.

      Yes, you are so right – I think that’s why I don’t enjoy reading to lists or challenges, because then I start to feel constrained and I don’t enjoy my reading anymore. I need to be free to read what my soul needs at the time! I would be exactly the same, Penny – when I eventually get a home of my own, the first thing I will do is gather my books around me. Some have been boxed up for so long, it will be a total surprise to me to see what I actually own!

  2. I love the film and wondered if it had been based on a book. Now I know not to bother with the book! I rely on your always excellent opinions in these matters!

    I haven’t dared looked at your wonderful blog for some weeks now, as I’ve been studying for an exam and I knew you would make me YEARN to read other things besides my course books! But the exam’s over now and I’m diving into my TBR bookcase!

    Funnily enough, the book I finished just before the studying began in earnest and the chick-lit I’m relaxing with at the moment (!), are both set in New York and I’m so enjoying the descriptions and thinking of you seeing it all. The first was The Girl Next Door by Elizabeth Noble and the second is A Perfect Proposal by Katie Fforde. I’d particularly recommend the first, but it made me cry a lot at one part…

    I’m going to enjoy catching up on what you’ve been writing while I was ‘otherwise engaged’! 🙂

    1. Penny, I have missed you! Glad that your studying period is over and you are free to read for pleasure…and peruse blogs again! Hurrah! When will you find out your results?!

      Well a bit of New York based chick lit couldn’t do me any harm! If I REALLY want some comfort reads, I’ll reach for your suggestions, thank you!

      I hope you enjoy the posts you missed! It’s lovely to see you back online again! 🙂

  3. I know what you mean about needing a more relaxing book. By middlebrow midcentury British fiction, do you mean books like Persephones? I’ve recently discovered Persephone books and while they’re hard to come by here in the US, I’ve been able to get old editions of some of the list through my library via interlibrary loan. I do enjoy that period, so interesting. I wish it was easier to find here.

    1. Oh yes, Karen. I LOVE persephone books and I have a huge collection back home…sadly an ocean away! They’re very hard to get hold of in the US, as I have discovered since arriving. I shall have to find some good American women authors of the period. Susan Glaspell and Dorothy Canfield are Persephone favourites of mine, but even though they’re American, their books are still tricky to uncover here!

      1. I’ve been able to get some of the titles on the Persephone list from my library. They own a few of them in old editions, like Miss Buncle, and they’ve also procured a few copies from interlibrary loan. Thank goodness for The Book Depository or I’d be out of Persephones pretty soon.

  4. There’s a ‘coming soon’ Persephone called The Outward Room by Millen Brand, which sounds fascinating, set in NY, which at the moment is hard to get hold of here but you could buy it for pennies over there without hefty postal charges.
    Just a thought … and I’d much sooner read it than Moby Dick!

    1. Hi M. I have an Advance Reading Copy of The Outward Room which is to be published here in the US by New York Review of Books publishers. There is to be an introduction by Peter Cameron but it is not printed in the proof copy I have, nor is the release date. I am guessing it will be late this year or early next year. It does indeed take place in New York and is quite good. Is Persephone publishing it spring of 2011? That would be a real coincidence, but the book is very Persephone-like.

      1. Lucky you. I don’t know when it’s coming out in Persephone, I imagine next year some time.
        I keep hoping that I’ll come across an old one in a second hand shop but I don;t thik there’s much chance over here.

    2. I’m going to see if I can find this book, Mary – I’m sure you mentioned it to me before but I couldn’t find a copy at the time. I need a bit of Persephone style reading material in my life! Much more palatable than Moby Dick, I have to say!

  5. Ohh Rachel I feel the same! I loved the film so much that I went ahead and purchased the book (years ago) and was disappointed that it was different. There were lines in the film that I really wanted to be in the book but weren’t.

    1. I’m glad we’re of the same mind, Claire – I was starting to worry that I was missing something! I really do think the book lacks a heart, and that heart was what I enjoyed most about the storyline in the film. Now I just want to curl up with the DVD and forget the book ever happened!

  6. I’ve watched the movie maybe six times, and love it more with each viewing. I recently bought it so I could watch anytime I wanted. :<) I read the book years ago and thought it wasn't at all good. There really are movies that are way better than the books. Another example is the film Home for the Holidays. I read the short story it was based on and it was terrible.

    1. I’m glad you love the film too, Nan! It’s a certain type of romantic soul that appreciates such cheese, I think! It’s good to know that I’m not alone on this one – I think you have to be careful when reading books AFTER films as often they are not what you imagined, and so disappointing. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is another example!

  7. I remember there were some excellent chapters on women quilting in That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx. I understand what you mean about the comforts of middle-brow reading – sometimes you just don’t want intense! Have you tried Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap?

    1. Interesting, Nicola – I’ll have to look out for that. I’d like to read some Annie Proulx. Exactly – sometimes you’re just in a hot water bottle on the sofa with a cup of tea and a slice of cake mood, and then only middlebrow fiction will do. I’ve never tried Adriana Trigiani – thanks for another excellent suggestion!

  8. I’ve been wanting to read this book, but after reading this post and these comments I think I might start with the movie! I didn’t even know there was one, and I would usually never consider starting that way, but…

  9. Loved the movie,bought DVD so I can watch it whenever I wish. Have you tried any of Fanny Flagg (Green Fried Tomatoes). She writes easy read funny novels set in 1950’s in small American towns.

    1. Glad you’re another fan Merilyn! Oh my goodness, I LOVE the film of Fried Green Tomatoes…maybe Fannie Flagg will be the answer to my lighter reading needs?! I’ll get that out next time I go to the library, thank you for reminding me!

  10. I’ve never seen the movie so maybe if I read the book first, I will be able to see it “with fresh eyes”. Do you really quilt by the way? I am considering starting on it so if you have any good ideas for quilting books, please share 🙂

    1. Yes, reading first then watching later is definitely what I would recommend. 🙂

      I do quilt! I started a couple of years ago when the museum where I worked started a lunchtime club. I had never made anything before and was very nervous about it but really, it couldn’t be easier. I am still working on the same quilt 2 years later, but that’s because I am making it all by hand and it is a labour of love!

      Jane Brocket’s book is brilliant if you want a no nonsense, quick and easy book to make quilts using a sewing machine – her website is on my blogroll. Personally though I am a very visual learner and I have learnt most of what I know from you tube videos!

      I am so glad I started patchworking – it’s not as hard as it looks at all and it’s so relaxing. Give it a try!

  11. i love the movie so much too – I’m feeling slightly aggrieved that its IMDB rating is only 5.8 out of 10?! Madness, madness. I must watch it again… sorry you didn’t enjoy the book nearly as much though – so disappointing when that happens, especially when it’s usually the other way round – so many terrible movies have been made from good books!
    Definitely know what you mean about earnest books becoming too much sometimes- I’m feeling the same, can’t wait to read my new Curtis Sittenfeld! If you’re looking to stick with all-American things, apart from CS’s stuff – so light hearted and entertaining!- there’s one other book that springs to mind. Melissa Bank’s The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing looks and sounds like terrible chick lit, but is actually very good. It’s sort of a collection of inter-related short stories, I suppose. The main character is both realistic and likeable (and not just because she’s called Jane, ha!) and the writing is thoughtful, funny and intelligent. There are some beautiful passages and turns of phrase. I enjoyed it very much, and it is short and very easy to read…. if you’re looking for the literary version of a Magnolia Bakery cupcake, I think it might well be it!

    1. Well I think the cheese value puts some people off. The best cheese part for me is when the guy is driving through the strawberry field eating the strawberries oh so sexily…hilarious! I was disappointed THAT wasn’t in the book!

      I really want to read American Wife – and The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing sounds like a naughty indulgent pleasure! Maybe to be read while eating a Magnolia Bakery cupcake!!

  12. I’m on the other side of the coin: I did not read this book because I thought it would be too much like the movie which, frankly, I found a bit sappy. I did read, and enjoy, Otto’s A COLLECTION OF BEAUTIES AT THE HEIGHT OF THEIR POPULARITY, which involves the intersecting lives of a group of people in San Francisco in the early 1980s.

    1. I am a sucker for sappy, Deb! You’ve Got Mail is my favourite film, after all! I would be interested to try another of Otto’s books, and this one you suggested sounds interesting. I’ll check it out in the library next time I go in!

  13. i love the film too, and was a bit shocked at its low rating on IMDB! i’ve put it on my lovefilm list now (have just bought a vintage patchwork quilt too, perfect!)

  14. Thank you for the timely warning, Rachel. I have shelves of books which I regret having bought (and have abandoned). If and when I move back to England I’m going to have a great big give-away. Then I might feel a bit better about the money they’ve cost. On the other hand, I have so many treasures which cost pennies that it all seems to balance out.

    I love patchwork and quilting too, the perfect occupation when listening to an audio book or the radio. I’ve always loved the idea of the nicely named Quilting Bees when the finished quilt was fixed to a frame and all the ladies met to help the maker finish her work of art. They couldn’t have been all sweetness and light and that was what interested me about them. This book would have been an eye-opener.

    At the risk of overwhelming you with another recommendation, I wonder if you’ve read The Dollmaker by Harriet Sim Arnow? As about as harrowing as it gets! Not a relaxing read I’m afraid. Set in industrial Detroit during WW2.

    1. You’re welcome, Chrissy! I try not to feel bad about the books I have – the great thing is that they don’t cost much and they can always be passed on in some way. Books last forever, and their beauty never fades!

      Yes! Such a relaxing way to pass the time. I enjoyed sitting in the garden and quilting over the summer – so lovely! I would love to be part of a proper quilting bee – I can patchwork but I can’t quilt! Another technique for me yet to learn.

      I haven’t read The Dollmaker! I’ll have to look it up, thank you for the suggestion. I have received so many wonderful recommendations – the only trouble is finding time to read them all!!

  15. Oh dear! I’m outnumbered! I read the book first, thought it was great. Watched the film years later it seems and found it lacking. Does that make me heartless? But then again, it may have something to do with winona ryder. I also picked up Whitney Otto’s other book A Collection of Beauties at the Height of their Popularity and didn’t really enjoy it. Was expecting another How to Make an American Quilt, same sort of style at least, which is interesting.

    1. Oh Heather! Where would we be if we all thought the same?! Of course not – the film is cheese beyond belief and isn’t the best out there – I just love rubbish cheesy films. 😉 And so do lots of us, it seems! I have read a lot of mixed reviews about Otto and I don’t think she’s the best writer in the world, but I certainly haven’t been turned off trying another of her books.

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