Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Two Elm Creek Quilt reviews

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.
I must confess that I do much prefer my Elm Creek Quilts novels to be historically based, rather than the present day ones because the present day novels can tend to be a little sickly sweet and are heavily oriented towards women's fiction, whereas the historical ones are more story oriented if that makes sense.

This one is a bit of both, more so than most of the previous books have been, and for me as a reader it didn't really work. It doesn't help that the setting of this book is Christmas past and present, which as a subject can get a bit preachy at the best of times. It also didn't help that this book actually appears to have been published out of chronological order in relation to the other books that have contemporary settings within the series.

The Christmas past aspects of the story were quite charming, as Sylvia shares some of the Bergstrom family traditions, from the choosing of the Christmas tree each year, to the making of the famous strudel, and to the breaking of the treasured family Christmas tree topper. Along with the pleasant memories though are the not so pleasant memories of Christmas past - the arguments and the estrangements between family members, some of which were never to be rectified.

In the present perspective, Sylvia is trying to deal with the repercussions of her decision to marry Andrew, and the difficulties that that has presented within his family. Meanwhile Sarah is quite stubborn in her refusal to make amends with her own mother, much to Sylvia's disappointment.

Contrasting the ways of the past with the ways of the present could have been very interesting, but in this case it was just a bit lack lustre.

Elm Creek Quilts, the thriving artists' retreat stakes its sterling reputation on the palpable creative energy and collective goodwill of its teachers and students. But when two of its founding members decide to leave the fold, the Elm Creek Quilters face untold change. Who can possibly take their place?

Among the candidates are Maggie, whose love of history shines through in all her projects; Chef Anna, whose food-themed quilts are wonderfully innovative; Russ, the male quilter whose pathbreaking style could lend Elm Creek Quilts an intriguing aesthetic departure; Karen, a novice teacher whose preternatural gifts complement her deep understanding of the quilters' mission; and Gretchen, the soulful veteran with a legacy steeped in quilting tradition.

Cherished memories resurface and inspiring visions take shape in careful deliberations. Only by understanding the meaning of what their own labors have wrought can they select the ones who have earned a place among the Circle of Quilters.

I can't remember which book it was in, but at the end of one of the previous books in the series, two members of the Elm Creek Quilts group have decided to move on, so an open call goes out to offer quilters an opportunity to join the team. This book focuses on five of the applicants, telling us their background, how they learned about the vacancy. We then share their journey to Elm Creek and their interviews for the position, including small moments of interaction between each of the applicants as they cross paths either before or after the interview.

I guess what the author was striving for with this book was really background to the new members so that when they appear in future books there is no need to really introduce them again. Other than that this book really doesn't move the series forward at all.

The first person we are introduced to is Maggie. She works in aged care and is introduced to the world of quilting when she finds an old quilt at a garage sale. She begins to research the history of the quilt that she bought, and gradually begins to recreate panels, eventually beginning to teach quilting based on the traditional blocks in her quilt.

Next up is Anna. She works in the food services area of the local college, and is good at what she does. In her spare time she quilts. She has tried very hard not to bring food patterns into her quilting but what's a girl to do when there is so much beautiful food about. One thing she could do is get rid of her academic boyfriend who seems to feel that Anna is inferior because she is not academic at all.

Russell started quilting quite late in life - and is a minority figure in that he is a man who quilts. He is also not as constrained by many of the traditional aspects of quilting.

The fourth contender is Karen. She is a stay-at-home mum who is feeling unappreciated and undervalued and who decides that getting a part time job at Elm Creek could be just the thing she needs to be able to feel as though she is happier.

The final contender is Gretchen - a life-long quilter who is a partner in a quilt shop. Only problem is the other partner is a bit of a bitch frankly, and is undermining Gretchen any way she can. Gretchen is thinking that a change of location is just what she and her husband need and maybe this is the perfect opportunity for her.

Of all the contenders the story that I was most affected by was Russ' but then again, it doesn't take much to get me emotionally involved to the point of tears! Chiaverini takes great care to ensure that all her story lines are nice and tidy by the end of the book and each of the new characters gets to be happy by the end, even though obviously not all of them will end up with the job at Elm Creek.

One other comment - one of the existing members of the group was a woman named Diane who has featured in earlier stories in the series. She is never my favourite character, but I really wanted to slap her during this book! Of course, so did some of the other characters, but please, let her not be such a conniving bitch in the next books!

I don't quilt, and I don't really have any inclination to start any time soon, but I have for the most part enjoyed the whole series. It does seem to me though that the series is losing a bit of impetus, which is disappointing.


  1. Yeah, I agree with you on these. I was a bit disappointed by Circle of Quilters, and didn't really like the Christmas one at all. Which is sad, because I really loved the earlier books in this series. I think there's at least one new one out that I haven't read. Just haven't felt like it. Maybe some day.

  2. I have never heard of this series and will have to look into the other ones.

    Thanks for the reviews.

  3. Deb, I have reviews of all of the earlier books in the series on my blog.

    The first one is here



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