With How to Make an American Quilt, first-time novelist Whitney Otto has managed a difficult double feat, winning both critical and popular acclaim for her writing debut. Set in the fictional town of Grasse, California, the book chronicles the lives of the members of a weekly quilting circle, piecing together their stories in the way that a quilt is pieced together and forming a completed work that encompasses the themes and events that have shaped American women in the twentieth century. Marriages and children, love and betrayal, bigotry and disappointed hopes all mark the lives of Otto’s characters as their stories and friendships unfold.
The event that serves as a springboard into the women’s stories is the arrival in Grasse of Finn Bennett-Dodd, the granddaughter and great-niece, respectively, of Hy Dodd and Glady Joe Cleary, the two widowed sisters in whose home the quilting circle meets each week. Finn is engaged to be married and is spending the summer contemplating her future in an attempt to sort out her feelings about her upcoming wedding. A historian whose interest lies with the details of history rather than its sweeping themes, Finn is at a crossroads in her life and hopes that the lessons to be learned from the lives of the quilters will help her in her efforts to define herself.
After the prologue, which introduces Finn, the book itself is divided into seven chapters. Each chapter begins with a set of quilting instructions, and each set of instructions serves as an introduction to the woman whose story then follows. At times the women’s lives overlap and intersect; more often they are private and unknown. What links them all, despite their differences, is their presence in the quilting circle and a sense that certain overriding influences—love, social mores, the time in which they have lived—have shaped each of their lives.
Finn Bennett-Dodd’s story is presented first. She is young—twenty- six—and the pattern that will make up the balance of her life is only just beginning to reveal its design. She tells us “I have lost track of the sort of girl that I am. I used to be a young scholar; I am now an engaged woman. Not that you cannot be both—even I understand that—yet I cannot fathom who I think I am at this time.” Her summer among her grandmother’s quilting friends is an attempt to define her own place in the world, to come to grips with what marriage can be and the ways in which it may shape her life. Finn loves her fiancé, Sam, and her questions arise not from any doubts about her feelings for him but rather from a sense that she herself has lost her direction. Finn has a scholar’s mind, however, and an abiding interest in the details that make up a human life, and she draws on both in her efforts to come to terms with the possibilities her future may hold. By listening to Hy, Glady Joe, and their friends, she hopes to find in their lives some key to what life as a woman may have to offer her.
Finn is closest to Hy and Glady Joe, and it is with their story that she begins. The two sisters, both widowed, share a house, friends, road trips to visit relatives, and an occasional marijuana cigarette—a secret indulgence supplied by Finn—and enjoy, to all outward appearances, a comfortable and companionable life together. Their past holds one secret, however; an event that is never mentioned but that nevertheless colors the pair’s relationship. Years earlier, when Hy’s husband was dying, she sought comfort one afternoon in her brother-in-law’s arms. Glady Joe and Arthur had long slept apart in a marriage founded more on friendship than passion, yet she guessed immediately what had occurred between her sister and her husband, and her hurt and resentment still color some aspects of her feelings for Hy. The experience taught Glady Joe one of life’s most difficult lessons: Even those people you love will sometimes hurt you, and the pain of that hurt may last a lifetime.
Of all the women in the quilting circle, none serves as a better example of the repercussions of setting aside one’s own dreams to follow social conventions than Sophia Darling. As a girl, Sophia’s happiest moments were spent in the water, swimming and diving with such grace and skill that she catches the eye of her future husband when she is seventeen, poised on a diving board. Their affair results in a pregnancy and a hurried marriage that fails to become the lifetime of shared dreams she had envisioned. Her mistake, she finds, was that “she allowed him access to her body without revealing what was in her heart.” Instead, she becomes a bored wife and mother, so secretly embittered by her lack of self-expression that she discourages her own daughter’s hopes of attending college and responds to the girl’s comment that there may be more to life than marriage and children with a curt, “There is nothing else.” Her...
(The entire section is 1996 words.)