THERE OUGHT TO BE A WARNING when a book will make you cry from the first page.
Not cheap, easy to manipulate tears but the more expensive kind that are a muscle memory of loss.
I knew the book was structured around a young widow writing to her freshly dead husband but I hadn't expected a wave of raw grief to drown me on the first page.
The torrent that swept me away also submerged Elizabeth, the widow, unmooring her completely until her only escape is to refuse to accept that her life with her husband is over, so she writes to him about her grief and her anger and her physical inability to engage with a world that no longer has him in it.
When the first tide of emotion ebbed, the true structure of the novel emerged. This is more than a lament. It's an empathic and compassionate exploration of how women deal with grief, loss, anger and betrayal and how they can sometimes help each other find hope and perhaps, forgiveness.
The story is told in three timelines. At first, we get NOW, in which Mike, Elizabeth's husband is dead. Next, we get THEN which tells the story of how Elizabeth and Mike met and built a life together. The story moves, almost metronomically between these two periods, with THEN sometimes deepening the grief and pain of NOW and sometimes qualifying our acceptance of what we thought we knew. Just as I was beginning to find the NOW THEN, NOW THEN dance wearing, BETWEEN is introduced and the focus widens from Elizabeth and Mike and the world starts to move forward.
What I liked most about the book was the honesty with which emotions were faced. We experience the loss of a husband, a son, a lover; the extinction of the possibility of Elizabeth having a child with Mike and the difficulty of supporting sisters and daughters through such grief. The woman here feel real. They are not "what-would-you-do?" soap opera characters. They are trying to do their best in a situation where there a no pain-free options.
This powerful, well-written book was Stephanie Butland's debut novel. I came to it after reading her fourth and most recent novel, "Lost For Words." which I thought was a little tighter. I suggest reading "Letters To My Husband" first and then "Lost For Words"