Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Christmas Quilt, Jennifer Chiaverini (4.5 stars)

From Amazon: When Christmas Eve comes to Elm Creek Manor, the tenor of the holiday is far from certain. Sylvia Bergstrom Compson, the Master Quilter, has her own reasons for preferring a quiet, even subdued, Christmas. Her young friend Sarah McClure, however, takes the opposite view and decides to deck the halls brightly. As she explores the trunks packed with Bergstrom family decorations that haven't been touched in more than fifty years, Sarah discovers a curious Christmas quilt. Begun in seasonal fabrics and patterns, the quilt remains unfinished.

Sylvia reveals that the handiwork spans several generations and a quartet of Bergstrom quilters -- her great aunt, her mother, her sister, and herself. As she examines the array of quilt blocks each family member contributed but never completed, memories of Christmases past emerge.

At Elm Creek Manor, Christmas began as a celebration of simple virtues -- joy and hope buoyed by the spirit of giving. As each successive generation of Bergstroms lived through its unique trials -- the antebellum era, the Great Depression, World War II -- tradition offered sustenance even during the most difficult times. For Sylvia, who is coping with the modern problem of family dispersed, estranged, or even forgotten, reconciliation with her personal history may prove as elusive as piecing the Christmas Quilt.

Elm Creek Manor is full of secrets, from a Christmas tree with unusual properties to the sublime Bergstrom strudel recipe. Sylvia's tales at first seem to inform her family legacy but ultimately illuminate far more, from the importance of women's art to its place in commemorating our shared experience, at Christmastime and in every season.

The beauty of books is that there really is something for everyone. Thanks to my book club, I’m introduced to books I might never have found on my own. The Christmas Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini is one of those. It is part of a series of Elm Creek Quilt novels.

A book about women sitting around quilting would normally not be my first choice, but I was surprised at how quickly I felt connected to Sylvia and her family. It made me sad that times have changed. Women don't sit around as much teaching each other to sew and cook, passing down years of family traditions. It's not just about teaching skills, but building families.

There are 18 Elm Creek Quilt novels, described on Chiaverini’s website as follows: In most of the books, the main character is a master quilter named Sylvia Bergstrom Compson. She and her young friend Sarah McClure open a quilters' retreat at Sylvia's family estate, Elm Creek Manor. Sarah and Sylvia run the "quilt camp" with the help of their friends, the Elm Creek Quilters. Other books are historical, featuring Sylvia's ancestors and earlier residents of the Elm Creek Valley.

In The Christmas Quilt, Sylvia Bergstrom Compson plans to spend Christmas like any other day, not willing to dredge up too many Christmas memories. But when her friend and business partner, Sarah, finds the Bergstrom family Christmas quilt, memories come flooding back.

Determined to help Sarah mend her own family issues with her mother, Sylvia revisits her own family issues and Christmas traditions. Sylvia’s family was well known for their strudel and quilt making. When Sylvia’s mom died way too early, it was up to Sylvia and her sister, Claudia, to keep the family traditions going. Unfortunately, they were too busy competing and fighting to come together as a unit. What starts as a mission to save Sarah ends up teaching Sylvia some lessons about her own family.

By the end, Sylvia finally understands the significance of her family’s Christmas quilt, “that a family was an act of creation, the piecing together of disparate fragments into one cloth--often harmonious, occasionally clashing and discordant, but sometimes unexpectedly beautiful and strong.”

It’s a touching story, one that will pull at your heart strings. I was particularly drawn to the flashback scenes and finding out more about Sylvia’s past. The parts of the story in the present were less compelling, probably because I haven’t read any of the other books and had no immediate connection with Sarah. In this book, she's quite underdeveloped.

Jennifer Chiaverini did make me want to run out and learn to quilt and make strudel, and that’s no small task especially for a struggling crafter and baker like me. If you are looking for a light read, full of emotion and interesting characters, pick up this tale. Better yet, look into Chiaverini’s series and start from the beginning.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Note: This book just missed out on 5 stars. I wanted Sarah to be a bit more developed in this story so I cared as much about her as Sylvia. This is hard with books in a series, I realize, but I had to judge this book as a stand alone.

For more on the author, visit her website.