Houghton Mifflin, 1995

The Love Letter was longlisted in 1996, the year that Helen Dunmore’s The Spell of Winter won the Orange Prize.

The idea intrigued me straight away, even before I saw the 1999 film of the same name: a love letter addressed and signed ambiguously, discovered by a 42-year-old woman who owns a bookstore in a seaside college town.

Dear Goat, Signed Ram. Is the letter intended for Helen MacFarquhar? Quite possibly: it’s certainly mixed in with her mail.

But there are other people who work at the store, too: Lucy, the manager, who went to school with Helen; Jennifer and Kelly (young college students); and John (a friend’s son, who has decided to return home for the summer to live rent-free while his parents are travelling).

The letter is not properly folded inside an envelope; it could well have been intended for one of Helen’s employees, and it could even have been mistakenly inserted amongst the large stack of mail that arrived at the store that day.

Possibilities abound. And that’s the point, really. Falling in love: we all know it.

The letter is not clearly addressed to anyone in particular, but, for all that ambiguity, the passion therein is clearly expressed. That alone is an act of seduction.

And, it’s contagious. Although, when she first reads it, Helen is inspired to put the letter inside a locked drawer, it doesn’t stay locked up. More than one person rediscovers the letter and, so, more than one person in this small college town is struck by the ambiguous-but-passionate declarations therein.

More than one person wonders about the identity of the writer and the recipient. More than one person falls in love with the idea of falling in love. More than one person actually falls in love.

The interconnections that arise because of these understandings and misunderstandings are often imagined rather than real. (And one could muse upon that in terms of the definition of ‘romantic love’ if one was in a philosophical mood.)

Those who read the letter become absorbed in hypotheses about the identities of the recipient/sender (often casting themselves in one of those key roles, either literally or figuratively by adopting/mimicking the emotions described therein).

As such, the novel is filled with segments that read like a 16-year-old’s diary, all angst and melodrama, and segments that are detail-laden. And, of course it’s a little annoying, listening to someone go on-and-on about the object of their desire, especially if you’re not in love with someone yourself (and, even if you are, you probably would rather go on-and-on about your own beloved).

And of course the details matter; if somebody is skipping meals (and only having a bottle of water for “lunch”), it’s quite possible that they are the letter-writer, who has been struck appetite-less by their passion and obsession.

But this is as it should be; it suits the tale. And, overall, the tone is a pleasing one, rather light and playful at times, even the tougher bits softened somehow.

Helen misses her 11-year-old daughter, who’s gone to summer camp, but she also revels in her solitude, and the situation creates opportunities for her to daydream (and perhaps more than that, too) that she wouldn’t have had with Emily hanging around the house. It’s all about the love, not the heartache, and even Helen’s divorce is long in the past.

The Love Letter would have a little too much of a Disney-fied feel for me, in fact, were it not for Helen’s character.

She is a bristly charmer, capable of seducing and offending in a single moment. She will cuss at her employees off-handedly in one instant, and send them home with a bouquet of fresh flowers to brighten their dorm room in the next.

And when her passion is ignited, she relentlessly pursues the object of her affections, and the attraction is rooted and expressed in a physicality which isn’t often accorded to 42-year-old women in fiction.

In the end, the letter is at the heart of the novel, and it is, simultaneously, irrelevant to the story.

We love whom we love, and much of that resides in coincidence and accident, and we are often loved in spite of our bristly selves for charms that are often obscured.

Also at the heart of the novel is Horatio Street Books. It’s a charming bookshop, with an unreasonably large poetry section (Helen being its best customer and Miss Skattergoods, the town librarian, the next best) and an additional specialization in military history. And there’s more besides: an eccentric mix, one which suits the town’s clientele perfectly.

The fiction section begins with Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes and ends with Zola’s Nana; in between are Barbara Pym, Leo Tolstoy and The Makioka Sisters.

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When Helen falls in love with Wilkie’s Collins’ The Woman in White, she handsells twenty copies in the next three weeks. After she finishes Wild Swans, she talks to her customers about it, in the bookish way that we all know, with a particular dollop of Helen’s peculiar charms.

“The most wonderful memoir, a history of China, really, and I don’t know which direction to go in next. Have you read it? I wonder if you’d like it. But what did you read last? Maybe I can read that. We’ll help each other…”

I know what I’m reading next — another Orange-prize nominee — although I did have a terrible time trying to narrow my list — but, if I didn’t, I’d happily take one of Helen’s recommendations. And I will happily read another of Cathleen Schine’s novels.

Have you? Are you reading for this Orange January?