Monday, July 25, 2011

The Last Letter from Your Lover

The Last Letter from Your Lover has a similar premise to a Sophie Kinsella novel I read earlier this year: Remember Me?. In both of these novels, a London woman wakes up from a terrible accident with amnesia to find that she is trapped in a loveless marriage, but harboring a secret lover on the side. At first, I was disgruntled by the obvious similarities, but then two things from my college classes came to mind.

The first: that there are a defined number of plots into which all stories--movies, TV shows, or books—fall. These “universal plots” or “master stories” have been catalogued in number anywhere from 7 to 36. Thirty-six seems a bit too many. But I generally liked this list of 7, compiled by Christopher Booker:

1. Tragedy
2. Comedy
3. Overcoming the Monster
4. The Quest
5. Voyage and Return
6. Rebirth
7. Rags to Riches

I’m having fun thinking of different books and movies and what universal plot(s) they represent. The other thing I remembered is something my Creative Writing professor said: that style--rather than subject--defines quality. A mundane action or moment described beautifully is better than a suspenseful or high-action scene portrayed poorly. The professor used a passage from Portrait of a Lady to illustrate this point, one in which there is little action, but much beauty. That teacher is the reason I bought PoaL, though I haven’t yet read it.

So, no story is original, and it is the style rather than the subject that counts. If you gave a roomful of writers the assignment to create a story of an amnesiac woman who has a husband and a secret lover, you will get as many different stories as there are writers. Some would end tragically, others would end happily. Vampires would probably appear in one and in another, the woman would reject the male species entirely and journey to India to find herself. In that vein, these two novels were completely different. Moyes' book satisfies in a way that Kinsella's doesn't, though I enjoyed Remember Me? also.

TLLFYL was a thrillingly beautiful book. The style, the words, the emotions it describes are all beautiful. The word perfect comes to mind, but that isn't true. TLLFYL tells the story of a woman who doesn't fit in in her world. She struggles to find herself while yearning for a love that means something. Real and powerful emotions are depicted in a compelling narrative voice. The structure was carefully done; the book began with Jennifer Stirling waking from her accident into an unknown world with a domineering husband, soon finding a passionate love letter in a shoebox in her closet. The next chapter takes us to the beginning of the affair, where Jennifer, months earlier, meets her lover, the writer of the letter. The author alternates between past and present in a way that maximizes suspense while advancing the story. Part III introduces a modern (2003 London) element into the story, which serves to both parallel the story set up in Parts I and II, and illuminate it. At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about the new approach and new characters so late in the book, but in the end, I liked it.

This book celebrates the beauty of a lover's words. Jennifer falls in love, at least a little bit, with her lover because of his faculty with words. Their relationship is grounded and elevated by words: his mastery of them and her inadequacy. He defines "vicariously" to her early in their affair: "Deriving pleasure from another's pleasure." And that one word repeated to each other throughout their relationship, spanning distance and years, contains a world of meaning. Every time I read it I felt a little shiver of something, word-lust, I guess. It was a promise, desire, heartache, longing, sadness, fear, love... all in one word. Vicariously.

I LOVED this book. Grade: A