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.
RNA/Pure Passion Awards 2011.
WINNER: Romantic Novel of the Year.
At the 2011 Romantic Novelists’ Association/Pure Passion Awards ceremony last month, Jojo Moyes‘ The Last Letter from your Lover won the coveted ‘Romantic Novel of the Year’ award.
The three judges of the award were Amanda Craig, author and book reviewer, fiction buyer for Waterstone’s Janine Cook and actor Jay Benedict – a regular reviewer (professional commitments permitting) on Vulpes Libris.
Today, Jay joins us with his own, inimitable, take on Jojo’s prize-winning romance:
If romance is carried in our RNA, then Jojo Moyes must have the stuff by the bucketload. I guess you’re either a born Romantic, or not. You’re either wild, extravagant, fanciful, chimeric, anti-classical … or not. And Jojo is.
The Last Letter from Your Lover is written like a movie. You can see it as you’re reading it – no mean feat. It’s a story full of flashbacks and flash-forwards; one minute we’re in the South of France, the next – London. We have time jumps and slow dissolves. We’re on a yacht, in a hotel room, a park, train, airport – and all this is linked with passionate love letters between two people.
In a nutshell, the book is a homage to the lost art of the love letter or, as the sleeve notes put it – a lament.
Each chapter is prefaced by a real life ‘last letter’, from males to females, and vice versa, wishing the recipient a Happy Birthday, or carrying a handful of words ending an affair – like the telegram from one man to his war bride simply stating: Don’t come.
We very quickly enter a world of clipped accents, letters written with pen and ink, cashmere coats and leopard skin pillbox hats, tight chignons and navy two pieces: the black and white early 1960s, pre- call centres, telephone answering machines and mobile phones, when it was impossible to get sacked by email.
But let me back up a little …
In the prologue we find Ellie Haworth working as a 20-something journalist at ‘The Nation’, in 21st century Britain. ‘The Nation’ is moving its HQ to Compass Quay, east of the city, after 100 years in premises on Turner Street. Melissa, Head of Features, wants an article to reflect these sweeping changes: how women’s preoccupations have changed, their attitudes on fashion and something along the lines of plus ça change …
While having a rummage around in the archives, she stumbles across a battered file that seems to be about lung disease, but as she’s about to throw it away, a letter slips out dated the 4th of October 1960. It starts:
My dearest and only love,
I meant what I said. I have come to the conclusion that the only way forward is for one of us to take a bold decision …
And ending in:
… I’ll be on platform 4 at 7.15on Friday evening and there is nothing in the world that would make me happier than if you found the courage to come with me … Know that you hold my heart, my hopes, in your hands.
Intrigued and already welling up, we’re only on page 17 out of 489.
Then, leaving Ellie in the Archives, we’re plunged into an entirely different story, starting in a private hospital where Jenny Stirling is waking up from a near fatal car crash. The first thing she hears are two voices murmuring something about Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend having survived.
[detour starts] While on tour in the United Kingdom, 21-year-old Eddie Cochran died in a traffic accident. He was set to be a massive pop star and was from America. The speeding taxi blew a tyre, lost control, and crashed into a lamp post where a plaque now marks the spot (no other car was involved). Cochran, who was sitting in the center of the back seat, threw his body over his girlfriend to shield her, was thrown out of the car when the door flew open. He died in hospital the following day of severe head injuries nand his body was flown home. But I digress. [detour ends]
In fact, Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend is really a bit of a red herring: it’s Jojo’s way of telling us we’re in pre-Beatles Britain and very soon to be ‘Swinging London’. It’s a reference for the readers and gives pop trivialists like myself something to hang a time frame on.
Jenny’s about to be discharged but her arm will have to be reset, her head aches continuously and she can’t remember much. She’s having to re-learn everything from the start. She’s beautiful, has a foreign housekeeper – Mrs Cordoza – a successful husband, no children, and lots of money; she’s a hostess and socialite who constantly throws parties – the perfect trophy wife in fact. Laurence Stirling’s the rich successful industrialist husband, frequently away, cold and aloof.
In spite of her amnesia she knows something isn’t quite right but can’t articulate it. She’s having trouble remembering her friends, her likes and dislikes and, despite the fact that everyone’s telling her she looks well and it’s ‘only a matter of time’, she’s painfully ill at ease – especially around Laurence who constantly screams at her to call him Larry.
Confused? You would be. The end result of all this is that she doesn’t want to sleep with Laurence or Larry and doesn’t know why. Scream at anyone often enough and you wouldn’t want to sleep with them either is the moral of that story, right? She realizes that memories could be lodged in other places than the mind. All over her house for a start …
After a series of dinner parties in which we meet her posse of friends, all from the Ealing school of comedy, Larry and Jenny are off to the South of France for a bit of R&R. Cut to: Anthony O’Hare – our unreconstructed anti-hero who’s also a journalist at ‘The Nation’ (Tiens! Tiens! – Quelle coincidence….!) being sent by his boss Don Franklin to do a piece on an industrialist, one Laurence Stirling, currently in the South of France. (Tiens! Tiens! – Une autre coincidence…!). Beginning to get the picture now?
O’Hare is deeply resentful about being there because he takes himself way too seriously as a foreign correspondent, but he’s had a nervous breakdown and drinks, so his boss wants to give him a break and try him on what he thinks is something light for a change. If only he knew what he was about to unleash, he’d have sent him back to Brazzaville. After threatening him with having to cover Vivien Leigh’s arrival from America instead (a fate obviously worse than death) he soon bucks his ideas up and flies out to interview Laurence Stirling, who in turn, graciously invites him to stay for dinner that evening.
Bored by Larry droning on about politics to all his ex-pat friends – who make up the cast for the evening – our anti-hero turns his attentions to Jenny’s porcelain beauty and understated répartie. However, his drinking gets the better of him, and he manages to insult them all by the end of the soirée. Waking up the following morning in his hotel room in a thoroughly confused state, and remembering the night before, he writes her a letter apologizing for being an ungracious pig. He staggers out into the noonday heat – talk about Mad Dogs and Englishmen – and surprise surprise, runs smack into Jenny, in the middle of nowhere. If it wasn’t the beginning of a life-long romance it would all be faintly ridiculous: a guy with a raging hangover sets out in a part of a country he knows not, with no car, to find a villa out of town he was driven to the night before by the Stirlings’ chauffeur in the dark? I think not. As it happens Larry has flown off to the Congo that morning and so begins a series of trysts around Antibes – in rowing boats, restaurants, and her yacht – wherever – until his expenses run out and Don starts screaming for him to come home. (At least he’s not insisting on being called Donald.)
Jenny dubs Anthony ‘William Boot’ – out of his depth in the war zone of Riviera society – and it all ends with:
“I think,” she said, “that you and I could make each other terribly unhappy.”
And as she spoke, something deep inside him keeled over a little, as if in defeat. “I think,” he said slowly, “that I’d like that very much.”
Back in present-day London, Jenny is working out who she is by dint of turning out the shelves and cupboards. The plot thickens when she stumbles across a letter tucked in a paperback addressed to “Dearest”:
Here is the truth: you would not be the first married woman I’ve made love to … When we first met I chose to think you would be no different … It was for that reason that I redid that wretched button at your neck. And for that reason I have lain awake for the last two nights, hating myself for the one decent thing I have ever done. Forgive me. B.
She unearths seven more letters all hiding around the house signed ‘B’ – all impulsive, passionate, quick to anger and to forgive. She’s now on a major search and finally, the penny drops she’s been having an affair…..
Take him to you if you must, my love, but don’t love him. Please don’t love him. Yours selfishly, B.
Larry’s mercurial moods and long silences are explained. The question is: How long has this been going on? (If this was a movie, that would be a cue for a song …) Was it recent? And who’s ‘B’?
But I’m not going to spoil the dénouement by telling you everything. This is a rollicking good read on any level – a perfect story for a movie or TV, with ‘HIT’ written all over it. It’s funny, relentless, sad – and has more twists and turns than a basket full of snakes. It’s a character-driven piece in which everybody has plenty of development; well researched and with great period detail. I was so into their love story that I completely forgot about Ellie Haworth’s framing narrative, which is the biggest compliment I could pay this book.
Chapeau, Jojo …
Hodder and Stoughton. 2010. ISBN: 978-0-340-96164-3. 489pp.
Lordy, it sounds exhausting! Not sure my poor brain could keep up with it all! 🙂 Well done to her though!
It does sound rather as if ideas for several novels have been lavished on this single one! It sounds like wonderful escapism though – I think I must give it a go. I’m glad to know that the period detail is sound – when it’s my era, I find I’m very sensitive of it being a bit off-target. Thanks for the enticing review, Jay!
Sounds intriguing… I want to know what happens!
I’ve read it. It blew me away – just loved it. So much the worthy winner.
It IS pure escapism but that’s its cleverness! The clever device Jojo uses is the novel within a novel. Once you plunge into one story that’s it for most of the book. You re-emerge three quarters of the way through almost like coming up for air thinking – Wow, I forgot there’s another story happening in overground England. For the most part you’re in the basement, in the archives plunged into 1960, and it’s compulsive reading. This desperate love affair, will she/he make it on time, etc … with a cast of supporting characters driving the action on. It’s terrific stuff and will make great TV I’m sure.
I forgot about that framing story too … I was so immersed in following the curves of the narrative that Ellie, down in the Archives, was pushed right to the back of my mind.
Just a word, too, about that parallel love story … it works very well. It’s completely believable and recognizable, and when you finally are yanked back into it, you don’t mind – which is not always true with ‘two-string’ storylines.
I really enjoyed ‘Last Letter’ – it was a complete joy to read and I wasn’t remotely surprised when it won.
Must must must read this! Sounds wonderful!
Pingback: Amazir by Tom Gamble « Vulpes Libris
I got this from the library on Thursday morning. I had finished it by Friday afternoon. Unputdownable. I fell in love with both Anthony and Rory. Always a good sign!
Pingback: Romance and the Foxes | Vulpes Libris