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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Stitches in Time

It is a dark and stormy day, and the rain is threatening to last well into the weekend. While I would prefer to be out on the courts or walking FrankieB or spending some time at the pool, this is a good time to catch up on a few household chores, pay some bills, and indulge myself by disappearing into the novels of yet another of my most favorite authors.

Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of the eighteen—in October, soon to be nineteen—volumes that comprise the Elm Creek Quilts Novels, a series whose stories are set in Waterford,  Pennyslvania—a fictional town that, I am told, is very much like State College. They begin with The Quilter's Apprentice1 in which newlyweds Sarah and Matt McClure move to the semi-rural setting to start a new life—he as a landscape artist, she as an accountant. When jobs in her field are scarce and hard-to-find, Sarah takes a part-time job at the long-neglected Elm Creek Manor to assist the elderly owner, Sylvia Compson, in "tidying it up" so that the family estate can be sold and Sylvia can return to her quiet life as a retired art professor and accomplished master quilter. 

Okay, this premise doesn't seem like much. But from the first opening paragraphs, I was hooked. The author is a very fluid, down-to-earth, dare I say, "homespun" writer. Her style is very easy to read, but her plot lines provide complex and often poignant stories of friendship and interrelationships, which, if I didn't know better, are those of family and friends that I know and have known. How Chiaverini entwines their tales together against the background of the art and craft of quilting intrigues me. And so, I have spent the last two days immersed in The Quilter's Apprentice, as well as the second and third sequels, The Cross-Country Quilters2, and Round Robin3, which I am just about two-thirds through and hope to finish later this afternoon so that I can start on number four, The Runaway Quilt.

Each book, so far, is a "quilt" unto itself; each one modeled after a particular style of quilt; each one a patchwork of friends and families who, together, deal with the intricacies and vulgarities of life. With any luck, I should be at last half-way through the series—and learn a bit more about quilting in the process—before the sun comes out again and I can return to my favorite sport of serve-and volley-tennis. However, I do intend to read the rest of the novels between future matches. But, in the meantime...

My dear neighbor and friend, two doors down, is a voracious and talented quilter in her own right. On many occasions, she has shown me a few of her works-in-progress to ask my opinion about colors and patterns—not that I know anything about quilting, mind you. I hardly even sew, although, at one time, I was fairly good at needlepoint. Now, when I try to thread a needle, much to Cathy's amusement, it is the ancient art of acupuncture. In fact, over the years, she has been kind enough to re-attach a few buttons for me and has even mended a ragged sweater. It's really nice to have a friend who can sew things up for you. But, more importantly, she is a very creative and talented quilt artist, in the true sense of the word. Her command of the craft, as well as her vast knowledge of the art and its  history is truly awe-inspiring. And I am patiently awaiting the quilt she is making for me in memory of my first Basset Hound. I know it will be as amazingly beautiful as all of her other creations.

Last Christmas, as I was ordering books, I came across a newly released novel, The Wedding Quilt4, by Chiaverini, not knowing at the time that it was number eighteen in the Elm Creek series. I ordered it in the hopes that if I read it, I might learn a bit about quilting on my own and be able to talk somewhat knowledgeably and intelligently with my friend the next time she shows me one of her works or takes me along to a quilt show or to a museum display. The last one we went to was "The Quilts of Gee's Bend", presented by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in October 2008, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Not so much for the quilts on display, but more so for Cathy's critiques and almost docent-like explanations of the various styles, patterns, and techniques.

Anyway, last week, I happened to mention to her that The Wedding Quilt was in my to-be-read-this-summer stack. She smiled knowingly, disappeared for a half hour or so, and then came back with the first three paperback copies of Chiaverini's series. Aha, I thought. Now I have to read the ones preceding The Wedding Quilt before I can read it—I am always one to do things in order. Last night, she brought me the next three sequels—four, five, and six—with the assurance that there were more on the way.

Now, I am not going to pun that Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilts Novels are keeping me in stitches. Far from them. She is a poignantly astute writer whose writing style and talent beautifully captures the true meanings of life and friendship, especially the strong bonds that are often tightly woven—and often unraveled—between and amongst women, be they mother and daughter, sisters, sister and aunt, neighbors, and friends. Her characters and protagonists are crisply defined. Each story is so finely stitched that I felt like I was actually inside a quilt pattern that was telling it. And so real are the characters, especially the members of the Elm Creek Quilters—Sarah, Sylvia, Diane, Gwen, Judy, Summer, and Carol, as well as their families—that I can honestly say that I know someone in my life just like each of them, or would like to. So true to life are the events in their lives, that, so far, at the almost end of each book, each with its own unique and touching denouement, I must admit, I was in tears. It takes a really exceptionally well-written book to touch my emotions to the point of weeping, but that is what each of these novels are doing. And I am enjoying every moment of it.

Chiaverini's books have been reviewed since 1999 by countless others. I am not going to fall into the—pun again—patterns of using all the overly used "quilt-y" metaphors that have been pieced together to describe her work. You can read most of them for yourself on the Internet. Some comments are well-written and spot-on; some are trite, a few are clueless. But just about all of them attest to the fact that the Elm Creek Quilts Novels are just the sort of books you want to curl up with snuggled under a hand-made quilt on a rainy day—just like today.

1 © Jennifer Chiaverini 1999. 271-pg, ppbk. Plume/Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York, NY.
2 © Jennifer Chiaverini 2000, 304-pg, ppbk. Plume/Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York, NY.
3 © Jennifer Chiaverini 2001, 367-pg, ppbk. Plume/Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York, NY.
4 © 2011 by Jennifer Chiaverini, 312-pg, hdbk. Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, NY.

For a complete list of the books in the Elm Creek Quilts Novels series, as well as other Chiaverini's works, please refer to her Wikipedia site at 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennifer_Chiaverini and to her Web site at http://www.elmcreek.net/.  
11:42 am edt          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,