- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

By Gil McNeil
Hyperion/ Voice, $23.99, 416 pages

Knitting is not what it used to be. I remember growing up in England when virtually every woman (and some men) could knit, and did so because knitting sweaters was so much cheaper than buying them. By the time I was in graduate school in America in the 1970s, knitting had become an element of homesteading, with long-haired, long-skirted devotees knitting their way to self-sufficiency during seminars. Today knitting is about sisterhood: about getting together to talk, to commiserate, to laugh while knitting and purling their work into satisfying length.

This most recent kind of knitting has grown its own literature. Knitting book used to mean a book of patterns, but today it means a book where knitting is the theme — or in the case of Gil McNeil’s The Beach Street Knitting and Yarn Club — the main metaphor. All that looping and stitching and interlacing of yarn suggests the ways that Jo McKenzie, the heroine of the novel, knits together her life after disaster.

When Jo’s husband told her he wanted a divorce, she threw the milk jug at him. He stormed out, jumped in the car, sped off and is killed in an accident. Calamity worsens when Jo discovers he had taken a second mortgage on their London house. She has to sell and move with her two little boys to the Kent coast, where she takes over her grandmother’s yarn shop. Such yarn shops were once fixtures on English high streets, but times have changed and many shops, including Jo’s gran’s, did not change with them, so it is merely hanging on. But if Jo and her boys are to live, she has to make it profitable by attracting a new clientele. She renames it McKnits, moves the horrid balls of artificial yarn to a back room, buys lots of silk, cashmere and other delicate yarns in pretty colors, knits cute seasonal motifs for the window and starts a Stitch and Bitch group. Its members include Elsie, the elderly shop assistant who at first disapproves of Jo’s innovations; Angela, the browbeaten wife of a local bigwig, and Connie, the Italian wife of the owner of the local gastro-pub. He provides delicious cakes for the meetings, and pretty soon Elsie is unbending, Angela is speaking up for herself, and Connie, Jo and their kids are becoming fast friends.

Indeed, things change amazingly quickly. By the first anniversary of her husband’s death, Jo has revamped the yarn business, made a host of new friends, got involved in her sons’ school and the town library, and even met a couple of interesting men. It all seems very fast. But then it must be noted that her oldest friend is Ellen, a popular TV anchor, and one of her early customers is Grace, a local girl turned Hollywood star and now living in a nearby mansion. Ellen and Grace both pour on their charm and influence at crucial moments, and while that’s very nice for Jo and her new-found friends, it’s not so good for verisimilitude. After all, Jo is facing serious problems: sorrow at her husband’s death, shock at his betrayal, the difficulties of coping with their bereaved children, the hardship of moving house and the anxiety of developing the business. She often says she’s worried or anxious or upset, but readers rarely feel it. One reason for this is that her husband appears only briefly, and their relationship is lightly sketched, thus it’s hard for readers to feel her loss. We have to take her word for it, and it is not quite enough.

Indeed, portraying the complexities of relationships is not generally Gil McNeil’s forte. She merely sketches people in. She’s effective at this, and one of the charms of her book is that it is packed with sharply focused secondary characters such as the obnoxious Alpha-Mum who heads the PTA and Jo’s ever-so-artistic, ever-so-selfish mother Mariella (aka Mary). But the downside of this facility is that major characters such as Ellen get the same treatment, so that the emotions that should underpin the action are absent, and the plot seems to be confected rather to arise from a credible interaction of people and events.

The saving grace of this novel is that McNeil writes wittily. She has a sharp ear and an observant eye; her commentary on her characters is often intelligent and invariably amusing. This goes a long to mitigate her weaknesses. Even more, her portrayal of Jo’s two boys, 6½-year-old Jack and 5¼-year-old Archie, is full of charm. She captures their speech and their anxieties, their sheer appeal, and one of the strengths of the novel is that it convincingly shows Jo’s devotion to them. Equally, she shows the little boys’ love of Trevor, a neighbor’s galumphing great dog who is completely out of control and completely adorable.

This novel was published in England as Divas Don’t Knit, a title that captures the different preoccupations of women who knit together a life that includes looking after their children with making a living — women like Jo and Connie — and those with careers involving days away from home and lots of money to splash about — divas like Ellen and Grace. Gil McNeil treats their differences light-heartedly though not without seriousness — as her English title suggests. It’s a pity that it was changed for America — though that shouldn’t prevent American knitters and readers enjoying the wit and fun of this book.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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