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
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