How to Make an American Quilt (1991)

by Whitney Otto

Novels with chapters alternately featuring members of a group are not uncommon — think of The Joy Luck Club and The Jane Austen Book Club. How to Make an American Quilt has that structure plus an extra twist: Quilting is used as a metaphor for life. The seven main characters are members of a quilting circle in Grasse, California. Before each quilter's chapter are instructions in quilt making that are meant to relate to the life of the woman. The quilt metaphor extends to the whole group as well, with a quilt of motley patches reflecting the connectedness of individual lives that appear to have little in common.

It is a clever device that, unfortunately, only partly succeeds. The chapters about the individual women, mostly offering a look inside their marriages, are often interesting. But the digressive quilting instructions read too much like a how-to guide, their meaning to the related chapter not always apparent. Moreover, unlike the pieces of a quilt, the lives of the women aren't connected with a strong thread.

Many people who have seen the film based on the book believe it was a greater success, partly because the narrator Finn, the granddaughter of one of the quilters, is more of a presence. Finn has so small a role in the book, appearing only at the start and the end, that she is nearly forgotten.

Still, Otto's first novel was a success with the readers, spending seven weeks on Publishers Weekly's hardcover bestseller list.



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