by Barbara Michaels
When an antique bridal quilt appears under mysterious circumstances at the vintage clothing shop where Rachel Grant works, she is fascinated. She has never been able to resist handmade textiles from the past, for she believes that through the ages, women wove protective magic into their fabrics in order to mark the important events of their lives: birth, marriage, and death. But there is more than good in the quilt's magic power. Day by day Rachel sees and feels the power growing, as she senses the quilt influencing her thoughts and actions. Much as Rachel's logical mind longs to deny the supernatural, the aura of evil coming from the quilt is terrifyingly real, and it seems to carry a sinister legacy into the lives of the people Rachel loves.
Well, it's another for the "not favorite" column of this author's works. I generally find Barbara Michaels very readable, even if I don't really like all that I'm reading, so though I grumbled and rolled my eyes and took notes for the sole purpose of griping in my review ('cause I'm mean like that), I have to grudgingly admit that she managed to pull me through yet another book. I wanted to see what would happen-- whether or not my suspicions would be confirmed. (They were.)
I don't think I'd ever bother reading this again, but for one read-through, it was sufficiently interesting. A word of warning, though: if you're thinking of reading this book primarily because you're enticed by the concept of a haunted quilt, don't expect the quilt to be center stage for very long.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Let's start with the good. The quilt itself was intriguing, and I loved the descriptions of the motifs/blocks. The fact that there was something "wrong" with every one of them-- something sinister hidden in the seemingly innocuous applique and embroidery-- was goose-bumpy and fascinating. I wanted to read more about that, but the reader was only privy to a handful of the gruesome details.
The creepy touches I can recall are as follows:
--cupid with almost-hidden horns
--woman riding the horse has no eyes
--hound about to take a bite out of a horse's shank
--snake wound around the flower stems
--red eyes peering out from between flowering plants
--"greenish-black worm coiled in the heart" of a rose
Then there are all the "things" hidden under the appliques-- not to mention the quilt's "stuffing". ~shudder~ That was all majorly creepy.
--I've read the two other novels in this loose trilogy, though I read the other two out of chronological order. It's been a few years, since I read them both in 2012. I don't remember the specifics of either book, so I wonder if the reading experience would be much different if one did have fresh memories of the first two books. Someone in another review mentioned that Kara (formerly Karen) had changed a lot between the two books, and that the change wasn't for the better. I can believe it; the attempt to make Kara "confident" instead makes her come off as far too abrasive for most of the book-- but then that seems to be the case for a fair number of Barbara Michaels' characters...
--For someone who was overweight herself, once, Kara has a lot of nerve: "'Not that that deters chubbies from trying to squeeze themselves into a size three,' Kara had commented wryly."
--It's difficult to sympathize with a heroine who secretly kinda wants to steal the husband of her so-called friend (and employer). Oh, she won't do it, of course, but in Secret Fantasyland, she'd like to have him for herself. Yuck.
--Other characters remark on how "smart" or clever Rachel (our heroine) is, from time to time. It's almost embarrassing, because... She doesn't really seem that intelligent.
--As a veteran reader of many Barbara Michaels novels, I came prepared for the nearly inevitable Battle of the Sexes and/or the joyless game of "Let's Look at Everything Through the Lens of Feminism". I don't know why this issue held such perennial interest for her; possibly it was an unavoidable consequence of being a liberal, educated woman of "her generation". Whatever the reason, the frequent references to feminism get old. This book is chock-full of them-- as well as strangely dismissive, stereotypical crap about the male characters. (Don't say you weren't warned.)
Just a sampling:
-"It was no betrayal of her feminist principles to admit she felt better knowing there was a man in the house..." (Whatever you need to tell yourself, honey, but now we all know you're a traitor to The Cause.)
-"You're a sensible, adult female and a scholar..." (Why the emphasis on "female"? Why not just leave it at sensible adult and scholar?
-"I respect courage and the principles of modern feminism, but this situation has nothing to do with either."
-Pat drives a truck (I think), and Ruth explains to Rachel: "It's a male fixation. Makes them feel macho, one of the good old boys."
-"There won't be documentation [of the quilt]; women's work wasn't considered important enough to merit written records."
-"'Hell's bells, superstition is my specialty. How could I have missed this sort of thing?' 'Because you're a man,' Kara said tolerantly.'"
-Adam asks, "Can a mere male join the circle?"
-Adam has thoughtfully started a stew to feed everyone-- he does nearly all the cooking in this book-- and Kara graciously remarks, "You'll make some woman a great wife." ...Um, thanks? I guess it's supposed to be a clever reversal of the kind of stuff I suspect the author thought women had been putting up with since the dawn of time-- but it feels really weird to me.
--Another pet issue in this particular novel is "Guns are Super Scary-- And They're EVERYWHERE, These Days". I've compiled some of my favorite gun-related tidbits below. Enjoy!
-"Maybe he had a gun. Everybody had guns these days."
-"They[criminals]'ve all got guns these days..."
-"...she almost regretted her refusal to buy a gun. Almost, but not really."
-"A loaded gun was an invitation to accident or manslaughter, and an unloaded weapon wasn't worth a damn."
-"What if he had had a gun?"
-"A liquor store hold-up gone awry, a semiautomatic rifle, a store full of holiday shoppers..."
-"If I'd had a gun I probably would have shot you!"
-"'Wait a minute. Did you say he carries a gun?' ... 'Carrying it made him feel big and brave and macho.'"
-(Not a gun, but related...) Someone's worried that a mystery package might contain a bomb, then suggests she was just being silly for suspecting a bomb, of all things. "'Not these days,' Tony said. 'You never know what people will think up next.'" ...Yeah, way to bring calmness and rationality to the situation, Tony.
-Rachel's crazy ex has a gun, which he brings with him when he breaks into the house, and that same gun is very nearly used to murder Tony, later on.
--Fortunately, Cheryl and Tony's bratty kids are out of the story for most of the book, but they're there in the beginning.
Jerry tries to wriggle out of Rachel's arms, and instead of scolding him (or doing anything else a responsible parent might do to try to teach his kid not to be a complete brat), Tony warns that he's too heavy and that Rachel should put him down before he kicks her ("quite unintentionally"... yeah, sure, Tony)-- and proceeds to bribe the brat with another cookie. (GAH!)
Then there's twelve-year-old Joe, who sounds like such a delight, lecturing every adult within talking-distance on the necessity of recycling "and the wickedness of using plastic trash bags". (Cheryl's response? "I only use the biodegradable kind, honey, you know that." I guess we know who runs that household!)
We also learn that Joe isn't allowed to be rude to his mother or use profanity in the presence of "ladies". "Tony was strict about such things, and Joe tried to conform. He did pretty well; if Rachel hadn't happened to overhear him talking to a buddy on the telephone, she'd have feared he was being repressed." ...Uh, yeah, it's so repressive to expect a 12-year-old not to curse. Thank goodness he had the outlet of his friends for his natural need to curse, since he wasn't allowed to do so in front of women. Apparently it's unhealthy for pre-teen boys not to curse. Amazing, the things you learn from books!
"...The only remaining job was to force the children to eat something before they hit the road. It would be a matter of force, unquestionably; she heard the raised voices as she approached the family room. Jerry was asking why they couldn't stop at a fast-food restaurant instead of eating stinky peanut butter sandwiches, and Megan was echoing him, although she never ate anything but peanut butter sandwiches."
...Gee, this is such great advertising for the joys of parenthood. ~eyeroll~
--Kara wears a vintage mink coat she bought at an auction. "'And don't give me any grief about animal rights, I get enough of that from Joe.' A fond, reminiscent smile transformed her face. 'He's a slick debater, that kid. He's got me so brainwashed I'd never buy a new fur coat even if I wanted to spend the money. But these unfortunate minks passed on thirty years ago. I told Joe I was honoring their memory by wearing the coat.' 'What did he say?' Rachel asked. Kara laughed. 'That my arguments were specious and my attitude hypocritical. In those precise words! ... I keep telling him that vintage is very P.C. We're the ultimate recyclers.'"
--This author has an irritating habit of calling attention to the fact that her characters' dialogue is breaking grammatical rules or conventions. I've noticed it on numerous occasions, across several of her other books. Maybe it's supposed to be cute or funny, but it's just annoying-- like she couldn't bear to let the characters speak naturally (grammar errors and all) without giving in to some OCD-ish compulsion to point it out. "Hey, reader. Look, I'm aware that this isn't grammatically correct. Please don't think I'm unaware of every rule of English grammar! I'm a highly educated woman, and I couldn't bear it if someone-- anyone-- thought for one instant that I hadn't included that error intentionally."
Examples in this book:
-"'However,' Tom added, 'thanks to you and Tony, we know what he looks like.' 'How do you know it's him?' Rachel asked. The question wasn't well phrased, but Tom knew what she meant."
-"'Too costumey,' Rachel said ungrammatically."
--Ugh, snobbery. Shopping at a mall for Christmas presents, Rachel "knew it wouldn't be easy to find appropriate gifts; the others were well-to-do people with excellent taste"-- unlike the rest of us commoners, I suppose. Why are you even shopping at the mall, if you hate it so much? Personally, I try to avoid malls--especially near Christmas-- because they're crowded and the merchandise is often overpriced (even if it doesn't come up to Rachel's standards), but I wonder where Rachel would expect it to be easy to find gifts for well-to-do people with excellent taste! It seems to me the difficulty might arise from the fact that she barely knows these other characters. Generic gifts are the best you can do, under those circumstances, and a generic gift from the mall is probably just as good as a generic gift from some high-end boutique.
--Adam asks if Rachel's mother is dead. "It was like Adam to avoid the cowardly euphemisms-- deceased, gone, departed." ...Excuse me, but how are those words cowardly? If you don't know how someone else feels about those words-- and especially if you don't know how fresh the bereavement is-- it's difficult to know how to phrase things so as not to unintentionally inflict more pain. But if you're not sure how someone else feels on the subject, it's respectful and caring to try to soften the language as much as possible. For someone who's still grieving, the cold, hard, harsh finality of the word DEAD can be hard to hear, much less to say. Dearest, darlingest, most detestable Rachel, I suggest you try not to be so judgmental of the sensitivities of others (especially given your own numerous "issues"). If you don't mind, you heartless so-and-so. (...Ahem. I don't like this character very much.) Contrary to modern belief, needless bluntness is not a virtue. If you're talking amongst friends, by all means, feel free to gabble on in any way you like-- "kicking the bucket", "croaking", etc.-- but when mixing with a more civilized crowd, it behooves you to not be such a raging harpy. M'kay? Glad we could clear the air.
--When we first meet Adam, he comes across as someone with some sort of developmental delay or maybe some type of autism. Then something changes and he's like a totally different guy-- like a clone of Pat. Then he changes yet again and settles into a more normal way of speaking. The whole thing is puzzling. Anyway, bizarre metamorphosis aside, Adam's the best character in the book. I had a hard time visualizing him (come to think of it, he went through a drastic physical transformation, too), but once he had "settled in", he was by far the most likable character. I didn't understand what he saw in Rachel. I mean, he seemed to fall in love with her in about a day at a time when she was still fantasizing about her precious (married and boring) Toooooony. That, however, is just another case of handy-dandy Insta-Love, and probably shouldn't even raise an eyebrow!
--Obligatory reference(s) to Egyptology: Adam wants to watch a TV special about Unsolved Mysteries of History, including the Pyramids. "The only mystery about the pyramids is why a lot of gullible fools think there is a mystery." Plus there's a dress that is described as "an Egyptian model of Poiret's".
--One of the "tricks" GhostRachel plays is putting dye and Drano into a bottle marked as bleach. Kara: "What's the joke? Was it supposed to turn my hands a bright indelible orange or make me break out in warts?" My question is this: Even if the bottle hadn't been tampered with, why would Kara have intentionally gotten bleach on her hands? Shouldn't she have been using gloves, in any case? (Gross. I hate the way skin feels after it's come into contact with bleach.)
--"My whole life is in that quilt. All my joys and all my sorrows are stitched into those little pieces. My hopes and fears, my loves and hates. I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me." ...Sometimes when I look at something I've made (crocheted, knitted, or sewed), I do remember little snatches of things-- what I was thinking about or listening to when I made it. But I don't think I've ever felt that strong of a memory/identity-connection with a piece of handiwork. ...And I don't think I'd want to, honestly. It sounds uncomfortable.
--Why are so many of Barbara Michaels' novels set in the South when she seems to have had a problem with Southerners? This book probably isn't the best example, but it's not the first time I've noticed this kind of crap in her writing.
The negatively stereotyped Southern caricature in this novel is Mrs. Wilson, the woman who inherited the quilts. She isn't a particularly nice person, but the other characters are plain mean about her before they even have much of a reason to dislike her. The way her accent is presented (and mockingly imitated) is downright insulting. And of course she consistently makes grammatical errors, too. After all, she's just an uneducated piece of white trash.
The oh-so sophisticated Kara makes fun of her lack of fashion sense, and when Kara and Rachel visit Mrs. Wilson in her home--! Oh, Mrs. Wilson is so tacky! She wears a sequinned, beaded dress and ~scandalized whisper~ fake jewelry! Her home is "painfully neat"! Her fireplace is gas! (I gather that the only acceptable fireplace is wood-burning. Only a tasteless hick would put up with a gas fireplace, clearly.) She complies with the boring bourgeois convention of putting family photos on the mantel! "The single bookcase contained a few bestsellers and Readers' Digest condensed books plus a collection of collectors' plates featuring scenes from Gone With the Wind, and a two-foot-tall Scarlett O'Hara doll wearing the famous 'barbecue' dress."
Now, look. Do I read Readers' Digest condensed books? No, I do not. Do I enjoy collectors' plates and Scarlett O'Hara dolls? Nope. But why should anyone care if someone else does?!
"Rachel told herself not to be a snob. Kara didn't bother concealing her feelings. The curl of her lip relaxed only once, when she admired a massive silver candelabrum."
Wow, Kara sounds so nice! I'd certainly love to have her come into my own home. I wonder what she'd find to sneer about here... Too many cheap knick-knacks, maybe? Furniture too mass-produced? Books on the shelves not highbrow enough? I know she wouldn't approve of my wardrobe, which consists mostly of jeans, tees, and supremely boring, non-vintage blouses. Nor do I wear uncomfortable shoes. No high heels for me, thankyouverymuch. (Life's too short to suffer for fashion. Besides, one never knows when the zombie apocalypse may break out. It's best to be prepared to run.)
--"Crocheted doilies... someone might give you a few bucks for them, but it won't be me, they're a glut on the market." (Besides, it's more fun to make your own. Yes, that's right. I crochet doilies. Like an elderly grandmother. :oP And you know what else? I display them. In my house. In 2015. Don't be jealous; plenty of thread and crochet hooks to go around.)
--The gang is reading about Mrs. Wilson's great-great-grandmother (or whatever the relationship was), Mary Elizabeth: "'Her mother having died when she was twelve years of age, she assumed the manifold duties of a plantation mistress, supervising the food, clothing, and medical needs of family and servants. Yet she found the time to become a skilled performer on harp and piano and a fine needlewoman--' 'All the womanly arts,' said Kara. 'I wonder if she ever read a book?' 'She probably didn't have time,' Adam said fairly."
Yes, Adam, very true, and thank you for pointing it out. Also, Kara, it might interest you to know that not everyone enjoys reading books, for a variety of reasons. I know it's hard to believe, but people aren't all exactly like you (not that you set such a high standard), and just because someone doesn't read much doesn't mean they're idiotic or worthless.
--Boo hoo, Kara wants kids-- her biological clock is ticking so loudly she can't sleep for the noise-- but she doesn't want to give up even a fraction of her fabulous career as a purchaser/refurbisher of vintage clothing. (I guess she doesn't want kids that much, then, but nevermind...) Anyway, that whole subplot was a zero-interest snoozefest. Where's the problem? Just set the husband straight (i.e. tell him you don't wanna quit working, but you just gotsta have a baby, pronto) and start trying-- and stop bothering the rest of us about it. Really, was there any reader who didn't foresee that Kara would be "expecting" by the end of the book? (~shudder~ Just what the world needs-- a miniature Kara running around being mean...)
--It was patently obvious for much of the book that, far from creating the quilt(s) herself, Mary Elizabeth had been the target of the quilter-- and from there, it didn't take much of a leap of logic to guess that the talented quilter was likely a slave. No surprise on either front.
--The "scary" element of the book fizzles out in the end. All through the book, we're supposed to feel creepy about the quilt. Then there's the threat that Rachel supposedly poses to Cheryl (and possibly others). Until the end, that is, when everything's just hunky-dory, because hey, none of those things Rachel did were actually really dangerous. No, no! Don't be ridiculous! That massive bed canopy surely wouldn't have been likely to kill Cheryl (even though that was pretty much what the characters told us, earlier). The glass in the cranberry sauce? No biggie! No-one would've taken more than a bite of it, and you could even see the chunks of glass, so that's fine.
One by one, they tick off the previously sinister things Rachel did while "overshadowed" and decide that they weren't really serious threats. No, no, no. Don't be ridiculous. GhostRachel was just a frightened girl; she wouldn't have gone through with her plans to cause harm or death. Besides, can you really blame her? I mean, she was a slave-- she was sexually abused-- she was cast off by her lover-- and she was afraid of what would happen when Mary Elizabeth sold her to someone else.
Sympathy for OriginalRachel's plight, I can certainly understand. What I'm not so crazy about is the diminution of the danger she put people in and the wickedness of her actions. Basically, how dare you not sympathize with her witchcraft? Not only are you expected to have sympathy for what she went through, you're supposed to absolve her of any wrongdoing. You're a cruel, monstrous racist if you don't forgive all-- sweep it under a rug and forget it-- and never even hint that she wasn't an angel full of love and light. ...We know she was essentially a good person because... she was handy with a needle, I guess. Clearly anyone capable of such artistry couldn't be a bad person.
...Or at least that was the impression I got. Everything she did was in self-defense. She only behaved as any "threatened creature" would, and "terror produced unthinking violence". ...Except... Okay, lashing out in fear, I can definitely understand. The heat of the moment-- the hatred mingled with the terror? Yes, it's comprehensible.
But this-- this masterpiece quilt! Something like that would've taken weeks (if not months) to complete. This wasn't a spur of the moment creation. It took careful planning and dedication. She had to procure the hair, nail-trimmings, etc. She had to chant her magic words and think about exactly what she was saying and doing, in cold blood. For goodness' sake, she had to go to a cemetery to get the soil for inside the quilt. ...So, yeah. Forgive me if I'm not a big fan of OriginalRachel.
Well, I'll say this for it: it's a very neat and tidy ending. They give the album quilt a respectful burial, the two remaining quilts will stay within the Circle as treasured mementos of this wonderful experience they've shared-- and all of the characters are sure that she's smiling down on them from Heaven, now. Well, maybe. They're not really sure Heaven exists, because they are Highly Educated People of Logic-- but if it does, that's where she is, for sure.
--A resounding "meh".