The Needle and the Stitch (book review)

I first came upon J. Botangier’s “The Needle and the Stitch” in the Strand Bookstore on Broadway near 12th Street. The Strand is the kind of bookstore that sells just about every imaginable kind of used volume. So finding an obscure American romance novel from the 1920s was not all that surprising. But, as I was soon to discover, this was no ordinary book.

Our heroine, Katherine Olmsley, is one of those heedless and headstrong young women one often finds in novels of this kind. Her upbringing in an old and respected Boston family, one that came “from old money”, as they say, only serves to highlight her rebellion against propriety. By the time we meet Kate, in her early twenties, she is a fully formed flapper, breaking young mens’ hearts left and right, knowing where all the right parties are, able to hold her own in debates about the latest scandalous ideas from Freud, even when tanked up on speakeasy gin.

All of this changes when she meets Rodney. For the first time she finds a deep connection, a soulmate. She is willing to overlook the fact that Rodney is different, even the fact that he is a household appliance. Sadly for our heroine, nobody seems to understand – not her family, her friends, the party people she thought were her true pals. When Rodney comes upon the scene, they all desert her.

And so woman and sewing machine set up house in a tenement on the lower east side. Unlike the young men she had been running with, Rodney is the perfect companion. He never complains, does not stay out late drinking with the boys, never even looks at another gal. When she comes home at night he is always waiting for her.

Certain intimate details of their relationship are elided over, as was generally the case for novels in this period. Perhaps this is for the best – the reader is left to exercise her imagination as to the nature of their bond. Besides, it must be admitted that a certain delicate level of euphemism is called for when discussing relations between flesh and machinery.

Suffice it to say that the relationship blossoms, deepens. Out of their impassioned lovemaking progeny inevitably emerges. At first only a hat, some gloves, the occasional woolen scarf. But eventually they hit their stride, they learn to understand each other in the way that only true lovers can. Kate opens a shop in midtown – the eponymous “Needle and the Stitch”. Word quickly spreads about the fine quality clothing to be had at the intrepid little emporium. Each item seems to be made with a kind of love rarely seen in such merchandise.

I won’t spoil the novel for you by giving too much away. Suffice it to say that if you pick up this little gem you won’t be disappointed. Not that it’s a perfect book. There are places where the thread of the narrative wears thin. And other places that could have used a firm editorial snip of the scissors.

But there are also madcap goings that will leave you in stitches, as well as lyrical and heartbreaking chapters, like the one where Kate, overworked and feeling hemmed in, is temporarily wooed away from her true love, tempted into a hot and torrid romance by a smooth operating steam press named Max. Will cooler heads prevail? Will our dear heroine eventually patch things up with Rodney? Will the two lovers end up tying the knot?

I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you. You’ll just have to read Botangier’s little masterpiece for yourself.

Leave a Reply