Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Friday Night Knitting Club

All right, I admit I've been a slacker lately. Fortunately, Jenny keeps up with her reading a lot better than I do, and my to-read list keeps growing thanks to her reviews. Now that school is out for the summer, I am finally able to start tackling my list! Or at least, maybe skim a few off the top.

I recently finished The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs, for my book club. My very first thought when I picked it up was, "Are you kidding me? You couldn't come up with a better title than that?" Seriously, if you were browsing a bookshelf and looking for a good read, would the title The Friday Night Knitting Club leap off the shelf at you? Yeah, I didn't think so. Although, maybe bookshelf-browsing is obsolete now that we can browse while sitting in front of the computer at home. If that's the case, and titles are less important as marketing tools these days, maybe we should just start calling them by opus numbers. In any case, I started The Friday Night Knitting Club while at the dentist's office the other day and found myself trying to cover up the title as often as possible because wow, if that doesn't say, "Holy boring!" I don't know what does!

And, to be honest, it was a little hard to get into at first. There were so many characters introduced that it was hard to keep them straight initially, and even harder to care about them very much. The first few chapters were full of lots of description and background, with very little dialogue or plot development. (The words of my creative writing professor echoed in my head: "Don't tell us what happened. Show us!") Way too much telling going on and not nearly enough showing. But despite the initial slog, it did get more interesting.

The story centers around a single mom (Georgia) who started a yarn shop in New York City when her daughter (Dakota) was a baby and in the twelve years since has turned it into a successful business. She has struggled with grit and determination to provide for her daughter on her own, but her happiness is kept in check by loneliness and doubt in her abilities as a mother. When the story opens, previously absent James (the ex-love-of-her-life-and-father-of-her-daughter-who-broke-her-heart-and-made-her-unfit-for-a-serious-relationship-forever-afterward) has returned from Paris and suddenly wants to be a part of Dakota's life and Georgia has to figure out if and where he should fit in.

While she is going through this personal crisis, an old high school friend who deeply betrayed her many years before also comes back into her life. Cat seems to have everything at first glance. Money, influence, and beauty (though much of that is obviously skin deep, so to speak). But all this comes at a horrible price, and she is desperate to get out of her abusive marriage and wondering if there's any depth left in her soul to start a real life. There's also Anita, Georgia's elderly mentor, a sweet and classy widow who is trying to sort out her feelings for her dead husband with a new possible love interest. And I haven't even mentioned the 4 or 5 other characters who also get air time.

Knitting is the craft that brings these women together in one way or another, and the book is filled with textile talk and parallels between their relationships and the art. The knitting motif is strong, but I don't think you have to be a knitter to enjoy the story since it's really about relationships (friend/friend, mother/daughter, husband/wife, etc.). But you will probably enjoy it more if you are a knitter, and if you're like me you'll be dying of curiosity to see the hand knit formal gowns Georgia creates for Cat, because wow, how does THAT work? It makes knitting seem very contemporary and not stuffy like the title suggests. But more importantly, there are interesting transformations that take place, and one lucky character even gets to have cancer before it's over!

Okay, I don't mean to make light of it, because really I did get emotional in all the right spots (mothers reuniting with estranged daughters, forgiving and fresh starts, grieving for lost loves, etc.). But at the same time I was irritated because I knew that Jacobs didn't really deserve to get that response. Mostly it was just an okay story with semi-interesting characters. I got the sense that Jacobs was in over her head and should have settled with something less ambitious for her first novel. The writing was okay, but not stellar. There were a few lines that I really liked, but mostly I wasn't overly impressed. And some of the plot was a little awkward -- like a random trip to Scotland that serves as a watershed moment for some of the characters but seems to come out of nowhere. Some of the characters had real potential, but it would take a lot of skill to draw that many characters very well and Jacobs didn't manage it. Instead, they cluttered up the story and the novel could have lost a few and been better off without them. She takes on lots of challenging emotions, but it would require more developed characters to really explore them well, and she didn't have that. My own emotional responses came out of my own experience, not out of any deep attachment to or empathy for the characters -- which is why it irritated me because I didn't think she earned it. And then, to top it off, the whole thing was littered with bad language so you couldn't even recommend it as sweet read to your textile-loving grandma.

Two novels in particular kept coming to mind as I read this one. Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, by Lorna Landvik, and Chicks With Sticks: It's a Purl Thing, by Elizabeth Lenhard. Chicks with Sticks is a young adult novel that uses the knitting theme as well (and similarly features a trendy yarn shop that serves as a safe gathering place for the characters while they sort out their problems). Angry Housewives uses a similar vignette style, but Landvik does a better job developing her characters and their relationships. Shades of these two books were so strong when I read The Friday Night Knitting Club that I sometimes wondered if it was deliberate. Overall, I enjoyed it enough to be worth the late nights I spent reading it. But I really can't see myself picking up a Kate Jacobs Op. 2 anytime soon.


  1. I don't have anything against chick lit, but I do grump about women's book groups that only pick chick lit to read. Does your book group consistently pick the same type of books to read over and over again? If so, why is that? Don't people like trying new things? I used to worry my book group was going to kick me out because I kept pushing books in other genres to everyone else's irritation.

    Sounds like Kate Jacobs is a pass for me, but I remembered your post about Angry Housewives, so I think I'll take that one for spin.

  2. You know, my group is pretty good about choosing a variety of genres. (Except for fantasy/sci fi, so I think I'll have to encourage them
    to branch out a little there.) Some of our more interesting reads lately have been "Life of Pi", "Freakonomics", and "The Kite Runner". So while we do have our forays into so-called chick lit (a term which grates on me when it's applied liberally to anything that explores women's issues because it immediately undermines any validity in the work -- but I'll save that feminist soapbox for another time), overall I think we get a pretty good mix.

  3. We have been deeply entrenched in classic lit lately. Nothing against it, of course, but I feel like I'm going to break out in a British accent and light up a cigarette at any moment. Our discussions tend to get kind of stuck. I've been suggesting Life of Pi for AGES, and, since I'm the one who hosts it every month, we will be reading it for August, whether they like it or not! I haven't read this knitting book, but I may check it out sometime when I'm feeling an urge for textile literature. Thanks for the review.

  4. I love to knit, but I'm not that much into knitting that I would automatically pick that one out of the shelf.
    I have read Life of Pi and I LOVE it. Amazing, couldn't put it down.
    thanks for this Caren.

  5. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.