A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.
March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.
June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.
Elspeth Dunn is a 24 year old wife and published poet who, due to a phobia of boats and the sea, has never left the Isle of Skye (Scotland). She's surprised to receive fan mail from American university student David Graham. A friendship through letters soon develops. The tone of the correspondence, as you might guess, eventually takes on a more romantic tone.
In any case, don't stop writing to me, no matter what. It may not be poetry to you, but I've never thought of your letters as anything less.
Waiting for the poetry.
Soon after the start of WW1, David volunteers to serve as an ambulance driver for the French Army (Elspeth's husband, Iain, is also serving in the war). She's not happy with his decision, to put it mildly. Her feelings having intensified for him over time, she hates to think of him in danger. David obviously understands there are risks going into a war zone, but he explains to her that he needs to do this. He needs a sense of purpose. David begs Elspeth to meet up with him. More than once, she tries to push past her phobias and grant his request, but it doesn't go so well. Drama within the letters (this being an epistolary novel) unfolds.
Fast forward to World War 2 and Elspeth's grown daughter is in love with an RAF pilot. Elspeth goes missing after a bomb attack on the village. Margaret sets out to track down her mother's whereabouts with only clues from one old letter to help her in her search. Just prior to the bombing, Margaret and her mother had had a major argument after Margaret had announced her intention to marry Paul, her longtime friend, now love interest (the pilot). Now with her mother missing, Margaret decides to track down her estranged uncle Finlay for answers, hoping not only that he might have an idea where her mother might have gone, but also if he has any knowledge that might help answer the paternity question that has haunted her entire life.
As much as I try to push the past aside so that I keep moving forward, nothing is holding you back that way. You have more questions than memories, more mystery than enlightenment. You have to look behind you. The present and the future are built on the past. I know that you want to find where you came from before you'll know where to go.
My lass, don't give up. Disagreeable uncles? They are no match for you.
The plot is maybe not the most complex thing ever, but it remains a satisfying read. Maybe it's my love of epistolary novels in general speaking --- I like the easy flow of them --- but the format just makes for a cozy, immersive reading experience. There's a good friendship built up between Elspeth and David, though I will admit I was a little uncomfortable seeing this romance grow when it's made clear there's still a husband in the picture. Maybe that was part of the appeal --- the forbiddenness of it --- for these characters. At different times they could both be a little on the immature side, but somehow I STILL found myself rooting for them. Though, in the later part of the book, I did feel for the stress it causes daughter Margaret, not entirely knowing which love interest is her biological father.
The initial connection between Elspeth and David that Brockmore works up did strike me as a little thin... Her books aren't even published in the US, he just happens to have a friend in Oxford who sends him stuff? I mean, yeah, possible... but you gotta admit, the likelihood (considering the time period, especially), seems a little improbable. The whole book, does it run a little on the cliched side? Yes, But somehow I'm not mad about it. (Note: I've recently gone on to try a couple other of Brockmore's historical fiction works and have definitely been less impressed with those.... they're not in the epistolary format, so again, maybe my love of this style of book in general is allowing me to cut this one some slack for its possible flaws).
The funniest thing --- I was greeted in one bookstore by a display of my own books. I must've looked amused as I picked up a copy... as a salesclerk hurried up to me. "Twee little verse," she said, quite seriously. "The author lives up in the Highlands of Scotland. You get a lovely sense of their superstitions and almost primitive lifestyle." I nodded sagely, then took the book to the counter and signed the flyleaf with a very distinct "Elspeth Dunn." I handed the book back to the astonished salesclerk and said, with what I hope was an airy tone, "We're regular savages but don't always eat our own young."
For those interested in novels featuring feminism, the topic does make a healthy showing here. Plenty of the letters have life lessons in them as well as lectures in feminism. For book lovers there's also mention of Charing Cross road bookshops :-)