Arango’s debut novel stitches together a patchwork of people and events to form a believable portrait of an emerging fiber artist.
After collecting several quilts to decorate her first home as a newlywed, community college literature instructor Jo Benjamin begins attending a weekly quilting class. Having never threaded a needle before she turned 30, Jo’s first lumpy quilted placemat frustrates her. It also attracts the attention of Grace, an older quilter with a delightfully sharp wit who says, “[T]he only way to make a perfect quilt is to become a perfect person and then just sew naturally.” Thanks to Grace, introspective Jo loosens her grip on her needle and, eventually, her fiercely held secrets. The pair, along with two other friends, creates a quilt to sell at a holiday fundraiser at the California Montessori school where Jo’s husband teaches and her son attends. After the first successful year, the group creates a new quilt annually for several years, each on a different theme that Jo chooses. Through quilting, Jo finds that she’s finally able to express her deep feelings for world events and those closer to home. Her inner journey mirrors the writing in the novel—some earlier chapters feel choppy and self-absorbed, while later ones bloom with additional dialogue and longer interplay between characters. As she explores her various roles of mother, teacher, volunteer, daughter, wife and artist, Jo discovers that it’s her friendship with Grace that will allow her to uncover and possibly change her true feelings about Christmas. While some characters, such as Jo’s husband and father, seem underdeveloped, the detached, analytical narrator seems so true to life that some readers may be tempted to seek out photographs of her vividly described quilts. Crafters and artists will identify with Jo’s mixed feelings of elation and shame about her work, her fascination with color and texture and her uncertain place between the art and hobbyist worlds.
Minor flaws can’t derail this surprisingly touching, but not overly sentimental, holiday story.