Don't let the pastels fool you!

Rosy Thornton’s More Than Love Letters (2006)
Headline, 2007

“Don’t you think it would be sad if nobody ever wrote each other love letters any more?”

The genesis of Rosy Thornton’s debut novel could well have been that statement.

Of course it’s a character — not the author — who asks that question. But. More Than Love Letters is, above all, a love letter to love letters.

If you, as a reader, agree as well? That a world without love letters would be a sadder place? There’s a match to be made between you and this novel.

But before I go on, I know what’s niggling some of you: the hearts and butterflies against the powder-blue background of the novel’s cover.

If Barbara Pym was being published by Headline today, she’d be dressed in pastels. Do not judge this book by its cover.

Admittedly, parts of this novel are fun, and that’s that.

And if you’re the kind of reader who takes a philosophical stance against stories being fun, then this isn’t likely the book for you.

For instance, two of the characters are young teachers and you can’t really make anything serious out of something like this excerpt from the April newsletter from the school at which one of them works.

This passage is directed at those in the community who had been wondering what happened in the wake of the Nativity play having been cancelled.

“It has been decided after all to stage the production, which had to be cancelled in December due to an epidemic of diarrhea and vomiting amongst the snowflakes.”

(Well, I say you can’t expect to take something like that seriously and, yet, I’m certain it was very serious indeed, for care-givers of said snowflakes and the snowflakes themselves.)

So still here? Then you’re not that reader with a philosophical stance against fun.

But maybe you avoid fun books because they often turn out to be (a) silly-but-fun, (b) poorly-written-but-fun, or (c) rather-frothy-and-frilly-and-overly-girly-verging-on-sexist-but-fun.

If you’ve gotten exhausted by all your serious reading and need some relief, but all the fun books you’re considering come with a ‘but’, then I’d suggest Rosy Thornton’s novel.

Persephone Books' New House Endpapers

Parts of it are fun, AND there are some serious bits that linger beneath. (See: no ‘but’.)

In the same way that, for instance, so many of the Virago Modern Classic and Persephone titles that so many of us love can be dismissed by some readers as “light stories” but often have other layers.

(For you could say that Lettice Cooper’s The New House is all about the members of the family adjusting to the move. And it is. Yet it’s also about the swath of social change that accompanied the reclaiming of the sprawling estates of the upper-class. And it’s about daughters’ struggling to overcome the expectations of the older generation and changing sex roles. And it’s about the different ways in which people define ‘home’ and construct it and recreate it when times change.)

So, you could read More Than Love Letters like you might read a modern version of Delafield’s Provincial Diaries.

Rosy Thornton’s book is told entirely in letters, not diary entries, but you could certainly pick it up and read a dozen letters and get your chuckle and set it down again until next time.

But you might not want to put it down either. You might get attached to the relationships between the letter writers.

One character in particular might take hold and there are several voices from which to choose. (And it’s not all about romantic love, either. My favourite letters were between one of the young teachers and her Gran.)

One concern that’s often raised about epistolary novels is whether they are far-fetched by nature. Just when things get most interesting in a story, readers are expected to believe that the salient characters sit down and write and write and write about it.

Some critics say that, even if that was credible when Richardson and deLaclos were writing, when there were no telephones or TVs, it doesn’t as readily work in the electronic age.

Now if you love epistolary novels, you simply set that aside. (That’s me.)

But if you require a more attentive construction, all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted in that respect here. (I checked, because I knew some of you would be sticklers for this verisimilitude.)

There are specific and varied reasons why characters in More Than Love Letters are communicating by letter. Sometimes this is obvious from the start, other times it’s explained, and in one instance, it becomes clear as you turn the pages. And, reflecting the different motivations for writing, the letters are of different sorts, paper and electronic.

There are also points at which the reader might be tempted to say “Really? You’re writing that?”, but characters in the book are asking the same questions or, at least, acknowledging that it’s unusual.

For instance, one of the women says “I know it’s quite shockingly drippy of me, but…”, and it was shockingly drippy, so the reader is relieved to have it said. And of course one does express shockingly drippy things when one is falling in love.

And at another point, one respondent writes: “Good grief…[a]ll this introspective soul-searching is most unnatural in a red-blooded male” and directly plans are made for a pub-crawl. So any discomfort is voiced, and of course it’s wholly believable that the fellas go off for drinks.

Bench + Novel + Woods + Croissants (in the bag, but only briefly)

And, in a quiet but sustained way, the reader is most thoroughly convinced not by anything outward, but by the fact that the characters share a consistent and pervasive interest in letters, in books, and in stories.

Of course, our schoolteacher, who poses that central question, is bookish. That’s no surprise.

She writes: “I was just sitting here, thinking about all those letters which were written from the trenches to wives and sweethearts. About loyal, hare-shotten Prue Sarn [and there are lots more, ending with] dear Captain Wentworth dropping his pen in his flurry to scribble to Anne Elliot….”

And her bookishness runs in her family; her Gran is always pleased to have someone bring her a new assortment of borrowings from the library, and was pleased with the copy of that Margaret Forster novel she got for Christmas (“the one with the old diary”).

And there is another character, who actually writes pen-and-paper letters, who has “books in heaps everywhere, including the kitchen and the loo.” Well you know how that is?

“With the distinctive odour of the second-hand stall still clinging about them, they have long since exhausted the available shelf space, and are proofing every skirting board by at least one volume’s thickness against mice.”

Mention is made of “everything from the Brontes to Mills and Boon”, from Lord Peter Wimsey to Frenchman’s Creek, and yet another character says that she wasn’t sure about dating someone named Gil because it “didn’t seem a very promising name until I remembered Gilbert Blyth in the ‘Anne’ books”.

So, as you can see, many of these characters are the sort of people who love their A to Z letters as much as they love writing letters, so the premise of this epistolary novel is solid from the start.

Not only is it a pleasure to turn the pages of More Than Love Letters, but it’s a solid reminder that, in the right hands, a novel can be fun AND a seriously good read.