The Oysterville Sewing Circle
The Oysterville Sewing Circle marks Susan Wiggs’ return to a more traditional kind of contemporary romance. Between its pages, we have a woman returning to her tiny hometown after a tragedy in the big city, two adorable orphans who need her guidance, siblings to make trouble, women to protect from physical abuse, traditional parents to admire – even a Navy SEAL hero.
Caroline Shelby has returned to her childhood hometown of Oysterville, Washington, after an all-night drive. It’s not a happy comeback to the tiny peninsula-situated town at what feels like the end of the world. Her attempt at launching a career designing clothing in Manhattan resulted in ten years of success, but imploded under a wave of scandal when her first line of designs were stolen by Mick Taylor, a name brand in the industry for whom she’d been a contract designer for years. Gathering two orphans who became her legal wards after the tragic death of their mother, Caroline hopes Oysterville will represent a return to normalcy and safety for her charges. But giving two whiny and bratty city kids a sense of normalcy will be harder than it seems, and she’s already starting to fumble the job when it comes to raising them.
But Caroline’s hometown is a far more complicated place than she remembers. Her loving parents desperately want one of their five kids to take over the thriving family fish market so they can retire, but Virginia, Georgia, Jackson and Austin all have problems of their own.
And then there’s Will Jensen, an ex-Navy SEAL and her childhood best friend and crush. Will’s SEAL days are behind him thanks to his losing an eye in the line of duty, and he, too, has returned to Oysterville to lick his wounds – alongside Sierra, Caroline’s no-longer-in-demand model ex-best friend and the woman whom he married instead of Caroline. The three friends renew their connection while they try to figure out what they want to do with their second-act chance at life.
Looking for a refuge from this new pile of drama she’s stepped into, Caroline returns to the place she learned how to sew – and the woman who helped her develop her skills. Lindy Bloom has run Lindy’s Fabric and Notions for years, and she welcomes Caroline back with open arms. A discussion with Lindy’s assistant – a domestic abuse survivor – makes Caroline realize that there might be other women out there who need to be able to unburden themselves, so together, she and Lindy form the Oysterville Sewing Circle, where victims of domestic violence can bring their embroidery and discuss their tribulations encounter-group-style. But when Caroline learns that Sierra and Will’s marriage is in crisis – mostly because of what Sierra has done behind Will’s back – she’s left with the option of honesty or covering for Sierra’s lies.
The Oysterville Sewing Circle is one of those books that doesn’t work if you try to deposit it into the real world. Parts of it are very compelling and well-done, but other parts are clichéd, creaky, or unnecessary.
Caroline comes off as a doormat for most of the novel. Forever running away – from her feelings for Will, from the man who ripped her off, from the ordinary world of Oysterville – her lesson is that she must sit still, must stay to fight. But the lesson she learns is one of selflessness instead – everything must be sacrificed for the kids. Kids who are frankly pretty boring and clichéd and shallow.
Will and Caroline’s romance is supposed to feel forbidden, but Will kisses Caroline the night after he gets married, and his willingness to cheat on Sierra even before their marriage began did not endear him to me and made it obvious that he and Caroline were going to get together eventually. I loved fumbly hot mess Sierra, and I didn’t like it when she took a left turn into Cheating Ho-Bag territory, which made rooting for ‘perfect Will’ and doormatty, mousy classic-Cinderella-figure Caroline hard to do.
I found the whole concept of the Sewing Circle odd yet inspiring; while encounter groups have and will happen, Caroline has no psychological training, and there are some very heavy subjects discussed. Getting everything out there is important, supporting one another and the community is important, but there should be some sort of guidance going on. Yet the idea of it and the progress of its growth provided the best part of the novel.
The kids, tragically, were the least entertaining part of the book and came off as movie moppets for most of it; I can’t think of a single thing Addie contributed to the book except for constantly pissing her pants. Flick was bratty, but at least he had personality.
The non-linear structure of the book kept tripping me up; we start with urgency and Caroline’s arrival in town, then flash back to her time in New York. Then forward again – then back to her childhood in Oysterville and her relationship with Will. There is no reason it couldn’t have been told linearly, and it definitely has a negative effect on the book’s pacing. And this is yet another book where we flash forward a full year and skip a lot of development, which throws the pacing off even more. And please, please Ms. Wigg, can you stop inserting fourth-act courtroom denouements into your books?
On the positive side, Sierra, is complicated, difficult and fascinating, the dynamics within Caroline’s family are interesting and the way the Oregon coast is described is inspiring. The circle itself is a worthwhile element. These were all interesting or beautiful facets that kept the book from hitting rock bottom. The Oysterville Sewing Circle is a perfectly solid piece of women’s fiction with too many problems to allow me to recommend it.