Sandra Fildes is a woman who knows what she wants. Brilliant, high-achieving, confident Sandra is an expert in her field, the historical study of textiles. When Sandra's husband Jack passes away after a long illness, though, Sandra finds herself at a loss about how to fill her days --- and her life --- on her own.
Martha McKenzie may be Sandra's polar opposite. About the only the thing the two women have in common is the loss of their husbands; Martha's husband passed away shortly after their marriage many years ago, when Martha was just a teenager. Now Martha leads a quiet, unassuming life, cleaning a local church, living in a small flat, and filling her hours by practicing her art. Martha is a knitter, but not just an ordinary "knit a baby blanket for a friend" knitter; Martha is a true artist, with an intuitive eye for color, a daring and inventive sense of design, and the skills of a master.
Through a chance meeting, the two women form an unexpected friendship. Sandra admires Martha's quirky ways and her obvious talents; Martha envies Sandra's wealthy lifestyle and enjoys cracking her tough veneer. The two women find common ground when it comes to knitting. Through shared conversations, the two form a plan to mount an exhibition of historically accurate knitted garments, accompanied by text discussing the importance of women's domestic work through the ages. "It's something to celebrate," says Sandra, "clothes made in love and service, something women have always done."
Sandra, a merely competent knitter at best, commissions Martha to do all the knitting for the exhibit. Martha, a perfectionist with a history of mental instability, finds the task almost impossible. When Sandra realizes that her incessant pressure brings Martha to the verge of a nervous breakdown, she must reevaluate her whole approach to relationships, including her idealized relationship with her late husband.
Although the title of Anne Bartlett's debut novel is KNITTING, knitting is merely one theme in this small, quiet novel. The healing power of women's friendship, the sustaining quality of meaningful work, the gradual process of healing after grief --- all are explored against the backdrop of a simple story about two women forming an unlikely friendship. Bartlett, the wife of a Baptist pastor, also interweaves Christian symbolism throughout the book.
Although Sandra is a prickly character who may repel many readers, and although Martha is portrayed as a little too eccentric to be a realistic companion for Sandra, the novel's general premise rings true, and its lovely descriptions of Martha's knitted masterpieces will appeal to knitters and non-knitters alike.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 13, 2011