With this outrageous and apparently heartless response to Maryʼs paralyzing loss, Ann Hoodʼs The Knitting Circle (Norton, 384 pp., $24.95) is underway. Mary does, eventually, show up at the Sit and Knit, succumbing to the tactile comforts of texture, color and rhythmic handwork. Knitting quiets her: “It wasnʼt that she didnʼt want to think of Stella. She just didnʼt want to lose her mind from that thinking.” Knitting is a meditative engagement with just being.
At first it seems this story will be a simple tale in a self-striping yarn—one chapter about Maryʼs life without Stella, followed by a self-revelatory tale of woe from another strong, suffering woman in the Sit and Knit circle. The array of stories here is heartbreaking—a drowned child, a near-fatal rape in the park, a cancer victimʼs agonizing farewell to her children, the son lost in the 9/11 attacks, a lover lost to AIDS, rampant divorces. For all of these women, and now for Mary, knitting is a way to manage chronic grief. “You know rosary beads?” Lulu the rape victim asks Mary. “Knitting is like that. One stitch is like a prayer.”
All of which is good stuff and well told, but a reader needs a plot. Hood—whose own daughter died at 5 of a virulent form of strep—doesnʼt disappoint. As Maryʼs simple scarves give way to hats and then socks and sweaters, the novel, too, becomes more complex and interesting. Although she returns to work at the alternative paper, sheʼs useless as a writer. Unbearably depressed, she spends her afternoons sleeping in her daughterʼs bed. Her marriage to the likable Dylan unravels, and he eventually leaves her for a happy woman. Still, she manages to keep showing up for the knitting circle, where relationships deepen and strengthen, and loose ends come around to be reworked.
Despite the superabundance of calamity in these lives, the question for Hood is what grief makes through a person. Lots of hats, for one thing. A community of survivors. Compassion, strength and familiarity with the jagged edges of sanity. Finally Mary turns her story like the heel of a sock when she discovers her ability to get past her own pain and reach out to somebody else. When co-worker Holly leaves her baby on Maryʼs desk as a Christmas gift—the note reads, “Youʼre a good mother…I couldnʼt do it”—she takes him home but helps Holly reconcile herself with motherhood. And when Dylan shows up again, she has the presence of self to know what to do.
The knitting circle spends a year completing a multicolored, complex blanket that is an image of the communal grief work that comforts them all. But itʼs hard not to feel that, like the stripes in the blanket, this well-told tale has too many structural parallels to be quite credible. And sometimes the resources of the human psyche seem oddly limited in imaginative scope for such an ambitious story.
Still, The Knitting Circle is a memorable and worthy read for its colorful characters, their irresistible storytelling, and the way Hood portrays the demands of grief and the resilience of the broken heart. As knitter Ellen says, “Stories are kind of like knitting, arenʼt they? Everything is intertwined. Everything connected.” This is a story in which almost everyone finds a way into the pattern of hope.Ann Hood reads at Davis-Kidd Booksellers at 6 p.m. May 29.
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