When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not an email or a Facebook message, but an actual handwritten letter sent through the mail? If it's been a while, then Jessica Brockmole's memorably romantic first novel, LETTERS FROM SKYE, just might convince you to put pen to paper again.
The book opens in 1912, when young poet Elspeth Dunn, living an isolated life on the Scottish Isle of Skye, receives a fan letter from a young man in the United States. At first, David Graham doesn't seem like a likely poetry aficionado. He's a pre-med student at the University of Illinois, the kind of guy who's constantly getting in trouble for pranks, and who wouldn't seem to have time to sit still long enough to read or appreciate poetry.
"When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not an email or a Facebook message, but an actual handwritten letter sent through the mail? If it's been a while, then Jessica Brockmole's memorably romantic first novel, LETTERS FROM SKYE, just might convince you to put pen to paper again."
But as one letter turns into dozens, both Elspeth and David begin to reveal more about themselves than just a mutual love of poetry. David admits that his pre-med major has more to do with pleasing his father than with satisfying his own interests. And Elspeth admits that she has never left the Isle of Skye as she's terrified of boats. She also acknowledges that she's married to a childhood friend who's now away fighting in the Great War. As David and Elspeth confide in each other more and more, the war begins to intrude on their relationship as well, just as their pen friendship starts blossoming into something more.
The sections featuring David and Elspeth's letters alternate with letters written more than two decades later, as Elspeth's grown daughter, Margaret, writes to her own distant love, who is fighting in World War II. Margaret is perplexed by her mother's increasingly bizarre and secretive behavior and, later, by Elspeth's sudden disappearance.
Margaret's research uncovers what happens to Elspeth during the first war, even as readers discover this truth for themselves by reading David and Elspeth's letters. The letters vividly demonstrate the ways in which people can fall in love with another person's words, as well as the countless ways in which the written word can prompt misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Surprisingly, given that the novel is written entirely in the form of letters, Brockmole manages to convey budding romance, suspense and genuine character development --- no mean feat when her only canvas is the letters her characters themselves write. The conflict that precipitates Elspeth's estrangement from much of her family may seem a little contrived, but then again, part of the point of the book is to illustrate just how destructive and irrational war can be --- wherever and whenever it happens.
Unapologetically romantic and heartfelt, LETTERS FROM SKYE is a reminder of the power of the written word to bring people together and to tear them apart.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 12, 2013