When you mention quilts to non-quilters, many think of chintz and florals, pastel ducks and alphabet blocks. It's true that many quilts are like that, in novels as well as in junk shops and craft shows.
However, some novels use quilts in a much darker, more robust way, the writers mercifully avoiding the temptation to blithely suggest that "life is a patchwork quilt."
So forget the chintz. Here are three books where quilts and quilters kick butt.
Infamous murderess Grace Marks has been imprisoned for many years in 19th-century Canada. Now she sits over her sewing — mainly quilts — and tells her story to a doctor who tries to discover once and for all if she is innocent or guilty. So does the reader, for Grace is as slippery a narrator as they come.
Each chapter is named after a different quilt pattern. Some are reasonably well known — Broken Dishes, Lady of the Lake. Others are obscure, with strange names like Snake Fence, Jagged Edge, or The Letter X. None of them quite gives us the clue we are looking for to interpret Grace's story. Does anything or everything have significance? At one point the doctor asks Grace what kind of quilt she would make for herself. She gives a classic unreliable narrator answer, telling us which one — a Tree of Paradise — then hiding it in among a number of other possibilities she suggests to the doctor. Is she lying to us, or the doctor, or both? A jagged edge indeed.
Two Novels In One About A Marriage In Transition
Happenstance has the unusual distinction of being two short novels published at different times and later sandwiched together. It tells the story of a husband and wife during a five-day period when she goes to a quilting convention, leaving him at home with their teenage children. Part 1 is from his point of view; part 2, hers. Shields cuts apart the family and the relationship like a surgeon. The wife, Brenda, has taken up quilting and gotten good at it, venturing into abstraction and starting to sell her quilts as works of art. The husband, Jack, is astonished that one sells for as much as $600 — actually a paltry fee for the amount of work involved. Brenda's quilts definitely contain no chintz. Indeed, they are so strong that in the book's most memorable scene, she wears her quilt around her on a snowy Philadelphia street like an action figure's cape.
The story of a 19th-century African American woman and her daughters coping with slavery and its aftermath, and the terrible things that have to be done to secure freedom, Beloved is at times almost too painful to read. But a patchwork quilt made of black, blue, brown and gray wool brings comfort of a sort to the characters and the reader. Among the quilt's drab colors are two patches of orange that attract various characters — a dying woman looking for color, the ghost of a daughter needing a focus. Towards the end, the lover of the heroine examines the quilt and sees in it how their relationship works: "She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order."
That is as close as any of these novels comes to the "life is a patchwork quilt" metaphor, and Morrison wrenches any cutesiness from it by grounding the quilt in the harsh reality of life lived on the edge. Give me an old patch of orange over a pastel any day.
Tracy Chevalier's most recent novel is The Last Runaway.