A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
More Than Love Letters is a strange beast. It has a twenty-something heroine, a contemporary setting, romance and humour, all bound in a somewhat chick-lit-ish cover – but it’s also a political satire with feminist under- and overtones, and an epistolary novel of multiple voices, told in letters, emails, newspaper reports and other documents.It also has a very original premise. Margaret Hayton is a young teacher and indiscriminate do-gooder who takes every issue seriously and fires off letters to her MP at the slightest provocation. The MP in question, Richard Slater, is jaded enough not to pay any attention to letters from oddball constituents – until he actually meets Margaret, and is smitten with the unexpected vision of beauty. She has found a worthy cause in a feminist collective called WITCH, Women of Ipswich Together Combatting Homelessness, and through her Richard finds himself embroiled in the troubles of a young Albanian refugee.Margaret is a heroine in a delightfully old-fashioned mould: beautiful, sweet and virtuous, though clever – a young woman who wouldn’t be out of place in a Victorian novel and yet is surprisingly convincing in a modern setting as well. (In comparison, Richard is a far more shadowy figure; but as More Than Love Letters clearly owes some of its inspiration to Gaskell’s North and South, I simply imagined him looking like Richard Armitage, who played John Thornton in the television adaptation, and that worked out nicely. Mmm.)
The question of target audience is a little more problematic. Those who enjoy the political satire may get impatient at times – indeed, I thought the satire was the most entertaining part of the book and kept wishing there had been more of it – and those who are desperately hungry for romance will probably not find enough of it to satisfy their appetite. This ambivalence is present on the level of plot as well, with the different elements sometimes getting in each other’s way: neither seems to get quite in full swing without being diverted or held back by the other. It doesn’t help that the romance lacks something of a will-they-or-won’t-they quality – Margaret and Richard pretty much like each other from the moment they first meet – and the epistolary format entails a certain repetitiveness, what with different characters telling the same news from their own point of view.
None of the above, however, interfered with my own enjoyment of the book, and I especially enjoyed the emphasis on friendships and mutual support between women of different generations and backgrounds. Even if it dissipated narrative energies somewhat, I liked it how all the characters’ stories mattered here – those of the women in the WITCH House, and those of Margaret’s Gran, best friend Becs and landlady Cora. (It finally turns out to be Cora’s story that gives the novel its title.) They were entwined in a way that real lives tend to be, instead of serving as mere window-dressing for the central romance plot.
The closest comparison I can think of would be Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, from the format of the novel to the humour and the pleasantly old-fashioned love story. But of course, where Salmon Fishing is dressed in an elegant navy-silver dustjacket and sold as a political satire first and foremost, More Than Love Letters is adorned with hearts and swirly letters and pushed as chick lit. I’m sure the irony wouldn’t be lost on the women in the WITCH committee.
Final Verdict: Entertaining, sweet, wise, original and yet old-fashioned – a very unusual mix. Not for everybody, but those for whom it is, it doesn’t disappoint.
Headline Review, 2007, paperback, 352 pp., 075533387X
Also reviewed on Vulpes:
I gotta admit, the whimsical cover art caught my eye when I saw it, but I do understand how it looks like chick lit. This sounds like one that I would like with all the relationships mixed with humor. Definitely one I’m going to look for.
Great review, it definitely gives a strong flavour of the book. Funny isn’t it how positioning can change the sales of a book.
I know this sounds bad, but I’m actually disappointed now to know that it’s NOT chick lit. I’m not so sure now that it’s my cup of tea. I thought it would be a nice fluffy romance! Not so sure I’ll buy it now.
Funny though, isn’t it, what covers can do for a book…..
Actually, I do quite like the cover art too – it’s cute and whimsical – only there’s a bit too much of *something*. Perhaps one butterfly too many 😉 Whatever it is, I don’t think it quite fits the content of the book. But then I suppose covers often don’t.
Amy, see, that’s precisely the thing – if you’d bought it expecting typical chick lit, you’d be disappointed, even though you might have enjoyed the book in other circumstances. And I do think you might enjoy it anyway (especially with your love of 18th- and 19th-century lit as there are quite a few nods in that direction). As you know I enjoy ‘typical chick lit’ so I’m not being snobbish here… just that marketing can be misleading sometimes and that doesn’t do the books in question any favours.
I’ve been meaning to read this for ages – it’s on my bedside table waiting for me! Great review – I want to read it even more now!
Thanks for a great review, Leena – I think you have my book spot on!
Obviously, being quite ‘invested’, as they say, I am fascinated how you all react to the packaging of the book. It is chick lit, at least on one level, but it’s also satire, and a skit on a Victorian heroine out of her time (Margaret in the book is just my idea of a 21st century Margaret Hale). I think (if this doesn’t sound too horribly pretentious!) that the epistolary format is one which allows every reader to pick her own way through a book and put together her own story, rather than the author leading her by the hand as with an orthodox narrative structure.
I was far from keen on the cover. It’s the butterflies, isn’t it? (There is definitely not a single butterfly in the book – though there are some head lice. I was told the butterflies were there to show the book is quirky and whimsical.) And I think it’s also the mauve/pink and baby blue colours scheme. Originally, my editor had talked about Big Ben and the tumbling letters but in black-on-white (rather like the cartoons at the beginning of ‘Yes, Minister’ – remember that? Great programme!) and the small hearts were going to be in scarlet as the only splash of colour. They said that might remind people subliminally of the packaging of the film ‘Love Actually’ – a comparison I’d have been enormously flattered by! They changed it to its eventual format in a conscious effort to go more chick litty, as a result of the marketing department testing it with customers (the bookstores and Tesco). It’s the way of the world. Authors don’t decide – not even editors do – it’s all about the marketing.
So true that it’s all about the marketing – and good that it is, I think, because it leaves writers free to write.
My boyfriend, usually a sci-fi fan, went crazy for Love Actually, it drove him into a sort of soppy daze where he said things like ‘Which was your favourite bit of it? Mine was…’ etc . Very odd.
Thanks for the thanks, Rosy! I really like the sound of that black-and-white cover – what a pity it wasn’t selected, but as you say, it’s the way of the world… Who knows, they might choose something like it for a reprint edition one day..!
I think the butterfly next to the peak under the N is extraneous, but I still like the cover.
Ariadne, major points for your boyfriend on being secure enough in his masculinity to admit he liked “Love Actually”, nice example of the Modern Male.Though I’m guessing his favorite parts included Kiera Knightly.
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