The Knitting Circle By Ann Hood
I picked The Knitting Circle to read some time ago and after a few pages I put it aside - thinking that it was too melodramatic - too contrived. Then I read a short description of another book by Ann Hood, An Ornithologist's Guide to Life, a collection of short stories. I thought it was a terrific book; and reading the author biography, I discovered that Ann Hood had a daughter who died at the age of five - and I realized that the story in The Knitting Circle, about a grieving mother, was in fact, based on a real experience in this author's life. Now, reading The Knitting Circle, knowing the author was writing from her own experience, somehow made a difference and I finished the book feeling that I would be happy to recommend it to other readers. The death of a child is a devastating experience. It completely changes the lives of the parents. In this novel the child, Stella, was the only child of Mary and Dylan, who met in their forties. She was their delight - and they discover that not only are they grieving because they miss her so terribly, but also because the death of their child has changed their own identities in an instant. No longer is Mary Baxter the mother of a delightful little daughter; her husband is no longer a father. How awful is the simple question that people ask - "Do you have children?" How can they know? The innocent questions that strangers ask make Mary afraid of social engagements, especially parties, upset not only by the loaded questions, but the banal conversation all around. The activities that father and daughter did together - simple things like grocery shopping - are now impossible for Dylan.
There is no doubt that the novel is somewhat contrived. The grieving mother is encouraged to join a knitting group in order to give her a reason to go out in the evening; to give her something with which to occupy her mind - a distraction. Mary Baxter, reluctantly, does join the Knitting Circle. Meeting in a wool shop, Mary finds a group of woman, and a few men, of diverse ages and backgrounds, all strangers to her. There is relief in this - they are not the friends she has made since Stella's birth - the mothers of little girls. Mary discovers that everyone has a story. Most people have not experienced the death of a child, and many have not had tragedy in their lives - but when you have, and others come to know of it, they will share their stories with you, revealing their own personal tragedy, which you would otherwise never have known.
One by one, the stories of the members of the knitting circle are told - and Mary retreats for a time, finding the burden of another woman's grief paralyzing.
Mary thinks about her life before Stella's death - the happy reunions when meeting at the end of the school day. "Trying not to think of these things, Mary picked up her needles and knit."
As Mary puts her makeup on she stares “at the stranger in the mirror". Even when she is dressed up for a party "she still saw the saddest woman in the world." The unreality of her new life is often overwhelming. And it is a new life - new friends are made as the members of the knitting circle come to know each other, slowing revealing themselves over the months that follow. As the holidays come - so does the first experience of them without Stella. At Halloween - Mary stayed in bed as Dylan handed out the treats.
The days and weeks pass, Mary knits and knits - scarves, hats, socks. Dylan reads histories - no longer able to read fiction. They watch cooking shows on the television. Dylan says "Without Stella, it's hard to remember who we are.". Mary avoids places where she might run into the mothers of Stella's school friends - when she does, neither know what to say - "all those...lucky women". Only after eight months is Mary able to decide to reclaim her neighbourhood and her professional life. She dresses in a favourite skirt and goes to her local coffee shop for the first time since Stella's death, and goes further on, back to her job as a writer for a magazine that reviews restaurants.
"Stories are kind of like knitting aren't they" muses Mary, “everything intertwined. Everything connected...It's complicated". As is life. Woven into the story of Mary's life in New York City, is the story of her own childhood and the life of her mother, Mamie. Theirs has been a difficult relationship and now, when they very much need each other, it is even more difficult.
As the first year after Stella's death comes to an end, we find Mary and Dylan - different people in many ways, living different lives.
They are not who they would have asked to be, but theyare able once again to begin to take part in the world around them - beginning, sometimes, to find life a pleasure. And for Mary, she has acquired a new group of friends she will have for life.