June 26, 2015

Letters to the Lost - Iona Grey

St. Martin’s Press, April 2015.

Four Stars

Iona Grey’s new novel contrasts the parallel stories of two very different women who struggle with circumstance to find love. Letters to the Lost will make a great beach read this summer, with just enough twists to elevate it from the average historical romance. I found it predictable in a nice sort of way – you know it’s going to end well, so you can just turn of your brain and enjoy the unfolding love stories. However, the ending will keep you guessing for awhile.

In 2011, Jess is running from an abusive boyfriend when she stumbles into a small abandoned cottage in the back streets of London. While she hides out and tries to survive, a mysterious letter arrives, allowing her to explore the 1942 love story of Stella and Dan. This connection is a little contrived, but it’s worth it because it is a departure from what could have been a more traditional storyline. It also helps to further Jess’s character: she is lost in life, as well as being lost in the letters she finds, consumed by a love that occurred many years before.

The letters and the narrative (of both Stella and Jess) are expertly combined, with no awkward transitions. I don’t generally enjoy epistolary novels, but the way the letters were woven into the plot worked well for me. The time shift was also handled expertly – both stories were equally compelling and enhanced each other. The authentic, detailed descriptions of war-time London were contrasted with the modern day city that Jess had to navigate like a war zone, finding a way to survive with no emotional or financial support. Although the circumstances in which Stella and Jess found themselves were completely different, their struggles showed that women still must fight much harder than men to live the lives they desire.

None of the characters are perfect, physically or otherwise, which made the story much more believable. Jess is not the boring young woman who exists just to further Stella’s story with her research – she has her own unique backstory that makes her relatable and able to stand on her own. Only Charles, Stella’s husband, is a stereotype who does not develop throughout the novel – I wish he had opened up more about his own feelings of oppression as a product of his time period, but he remained true to evil form, only causing suffering for Stella. It would have been more interesting as a reader if I were forced to feel sympathy for someone so despicable.

The stigma of mental illness is a major theme of the novel, and many of the characters question whether love (maternal, romantic, or otherwise) can survive it. The morality of the church versus individual characters’ ethics is also explored. Ultimately Dan and Stella must put their own ethics and responsibilities before their love, and their decisions carry this novel out of the traditional romance zone. They must let go of love instead of compromising their morals, and thus experience the devastation of letting go. Jess learns from their lost opportunities in her own life with Will – as she says of Stella: “All these years, through all she’s suffered, she’s been loved. Isn’t that the most important thing, in the end? To know that you’re loved?” (Loc. 6262). In the end, the strength of these characters and their love elevates Letters to the Lost far above a typical romance novel.

I received this novel from Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review.

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