Bainbridge Island author Susan Wiggs, whose many books include popular historical fiction series such as The Lakeshore Chronicles, now adds to her contemporary titles with timely topics: domestic abuse and women finding strength in each other. Northwest readers may also appreciate the setting in Oysterville and the small Pacific coast communities along Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula.
With its crowded summer tourist season and stormy, lonely winters, it’s a place young people can’t wait to escape. One of them, Caroline Shelby, harbors dreams of a career in the fashion industry. All through her teen years, she works at Lindy’s Fabric and Notions shop, designing and sewing clothes for herself, her best friend Sierra Moore and others. When Lindy gives her a catalog from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Caroline sets her sights there.
As “The Oysterville Sewing Circle” opens, she’s been away 10 years but finds herself back in Oysterville one morning, exhausted by a weeklong cross-country drive with two children, Addie and Flick. Their mother, Haitian model Angelique Baptiste, died recently from a drug overdose. Caroline, who’s never wanted kids, feels guilty not to have known about Angelique’s addiction, and accepts the role of guardian. But she’s returned, too, because a scandal involving her former boss, the famous designer Mick Taylor, has destroyed her reputation and prospects in New York.
At the Bait & Switch Fuel Stop, where she’s pulled in to take Addie to the bathroom, Caroline sees “the first guy she’d ever loved,” Will Jensen, now the high school’s cross-country coach, running with the team. He pauses to catch Flick when the boy starts to run off, recognizes Caroline, and then when they realize Addie’s disappeared, sends the team to find the little girl. Fortunately, she’s in the car’s back seat with her Wonder Woman doll.
Wiggs paints a homecoming of mixed blessings. Caroline’s mother and father welcome her and the kids to their big house; Caroline’s four siblings are delighted to have her back. But learning how to help Addie and Flick adjust to their new life worries Caroline. As she seeks advice, she realizes her women friends are particularly helpful.
She decides forming a support group might help others as well as herself. And because she’s still close to Lindy at the fabric shop, the name The Oysterville Sewing Circle seems a natural choice. Meetings begin and although there’s no sewing involved, stories reveal a wide range of difficulties these women have faced. One was forbidden to drive, another’s husband controlled all the finances, a third was beaten and others had divorced, their confidence and self-worth undermined.
Will, meanwhile, is now married to Caroline’s best friend, Sierra. She still models clothing but hitting her 30s has reduced the “fashion shoots for luxury stores” she used to love. Sierra longs for more interesting work, hopes to move from the old Jensen house on the Washington coast and — a secret she keeps from Will — wants no children. For a while, she’s happy Caroline’s back, but it’s easy to see a love-triangle developing.
Caroline gets the kids started at school. To help them overcome their fears, she makes superpower T-shirts, which other students soon want, too. For a PTA fundraiser, Caroline’s asked to make 300 shirts, which kicks off a new business designing and producing apparel. Wiggs writes convincingly of Caroline’s inventive designs, hard work and inclusion of several sewing circle friends.
A long flashback provides background on Caroline and Will’s childhood friendship. They spent their time together riding bikes and enjoying the ocean. Will, a summer visitor, stayed with grandparents every year during his vacations at their beautiful old house. His father is a widowed career naval officer stationed in southern California.
Although much of the story is predictable, Wiggs develops a large cast of interesting characters in a picturesque setting. Caroline’s struggle to turn her professional life around while falling in love with Addie and Flick, the hometown she thought she wanted so badly to leave, and her childhood sweetheart make the pages turn quickly.
“The Oysterville Sewing Circle” by Susan Wiggs, William Morrow, 372 pp., $26.99