My first encounter with knitting was literary: Jo March clicking away with navy blue worsted, making socks for the Union soldiers in "Little Women." So the idea of stories that combine two of my favorite things – reading and yarn – sounded delightful. After the success of novels set around book clubs, the release of two such novels this month isn't too surprising. Instead of reading as a metaphor for life, just substitute two needles and some merino wool.
"Granny chic" has become so ubiquitous that the CW show "The Gilmore Girls" had a knit-a-thon earlier this year, and Vikram Chandra's just-released epic "Sacred Games" features an Indian gangster who knits to relieve stress.
Like the gangster, Mary Baxter has taken up knitting as therapy in "The Knitting Circle" by Ann Hood (w.w. Norton). Months after the death of her 5-year-old daughter, Stella, Mary is unable to read, connect with her husband, go to her job – do anything besides watch the Food Network. At the urging of her distant mother, Mary shows up at the Sit and Knit, run by an elderly British woman. At this point, the novel takes on a pattern: In a kind of how-to Greek chorus of tragedy, each member of the knitting circle teaches Mary a new stitch, and shares her own story of grief.
Writer Ann Hood has written seven previous novels, and it shows in her strong writing and Mary's precisely rendered mourning. In an author's note, Hood explains that she took up knitting after the death of her own daughter. As one character says, " 'You know rosary beads?' she said. 'Knitting is like that. One stitch is like a prayer.... It's perfect for contemplation."
"The Knitting Circle" may not be for every reader: There are enough dead children, lovers, and mothers that even Sophocles would be sobbing in a corner. Not all of the women's stories rise above stock characters, and a reader will be yelling at Mary to go see her mother long before Mary learns why she urged her to take up the hobby.
But "The Knitting Circle" is to "The Friday Night Knitting Club" by Kate Jacobs (Putnam) what a Fair Isle cardigan is to a polyester sweater on special at Marshall's. Both novels use knitting instructions to divide their tale. But Hood has chosen memorable quotes from "Knitting for Anarchists," Herman Melville, and a fabulous poem about wool socks by Pablo Neruda, while debut novelist Jacobs gushes treacly, pseudospiritual babble about knitting as, you guessed it, a metaphor for life. (Folks, some of us are just trying to make scarves.)
Georgia Walker, owner of Walker and Daughter knitting shop in New York, was getting along just fine on her own, thank you, when two people from her past disrupt the single mother's life. One is her daughter's father, James, a handsome, successful architect, who didn't bother to meet Dakota until she was 12. (That this shakily written character is meant to be Georgia's soul mate is one of the book's biggest problems.) The other is her childhood friend, Cat, who "betrayed" her after high school graduation and now is being punished as a trophy wife in a loveless marriage. Georgia's support group is the Friday Night Knitting Club that meets in her store and is run by Anita, Dakota's surrogate grandmother and easily the best character in the novel.
The novel starts out as reasonably entertaining chick lit before veering unexpectedly into bathos. Jacobs's Hollywood-ready (she even name drops Julia Roberts) attempt to tug the heartstrings ends up in a hopeless snarl. By comparison, Hood's meditation on mourning is all the more striking. Grades: "Circle": B; "Club": C