As I was reading More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton, I kept having to pause in amazement. We all have preferences as readers, certain professions we like to read about, certain setting or clichés we never tire of, you know the sort of thing. If I had listed all of my predilections out prior to reading this book, I would have been able to check off almost the entire list as I paged through it. It was eerie. Earnest, idealistic young heroine who also happens to be a vicar’s daughter? (I am oddly fascinated by vicars). Check. Intelligent, older male hero? (Thornton gets extra points for such a large age gap – seventeen years). Also check. Politicians, teachers, immigrants, women’s groups and a promiscuous best friend to balance our heroine? All conveyed in epistolary form? Seriously people, it’s likeThornton tapped directly into my brain. And the cultural references! A dog named after W.G. Snuffy Walden! A heroine named after Margaret Hale with a best friend called Rebecca, who is not necessarily well pleased at have been named
…after the Daphne du Maurier (or in fact more likely the Hitchcock). Having read the book, at age fifteen, I took her to task about naming me after someone who is so obnoxious, so faithless and philandering, that she ends up drowned for her trouble – and has an extremely questionable relationship with her housekeeper. It seems to have passed Mam by completely that Rebecca wasn’t the name of the heroine.
There’s even a reference to Anne Shirley’s Miss Stacy. Surely that cannot be improved upon?
When MP Richard Slater begins receiving letters from a constituent on an odd and eclectic array of local issues, he dismisses them as the ramblings of some crackpot. After all, surely with a name like Margaret she’s some old biddy with too much time on her hands and an ornery disposition. But Margaret Hayton is in fact an energetic young teacher, determined to improve the world, whether it be by demanding action from her MP or by throwing herself into her volunteer work with WITCH (Women of Ipswich Together Combating Homelessness). When the two finally meet, Richard is instantly smitten and with his cynicism challenged by Margaret’s convictions, he finds himself not just in love but entangled in the plight of a young Albanian refugee.
More Than Love Letters is an interesting mix of literary conventions, part old-fashioned love story, part political satire, all thoroughly imbued with a feminist message. The romance between Margaret and Richard is actually quite straightforward. They both like one another from their first meeting and their relationship progresses very naturally, never quite take center stage over the other dramas at play in the novel. And that is one of the problems: no one storyline every really seems to form at the center of the book. With so many characters, many actively involved in the storytelling as letter writers themselves, you become invested in all of their tales. You care about Margaret’s friend Bec’s misadventures in love. You are hopeful for the women in the WITCH house; their very real troubles provide an unexpectedly dark dose of reality in what I had expected to be a relatively light read. You grow attached to Margaret’s grandmother and intrigued by her landlady, Cora. Such confusion of focus is one of the perils of epistolary novels but it does make the story seem more real. In real life, such a disparate group of people really do have a number of different problems all operating on the same timeline. Things do not magically converge around a pair of lovers, nor do their lives or problems stop just because they are trying to come to terms with a new relationship.
I had a lot of fun reading this and was delighted by how many surprises it offered. I had been intrigued by it for some time and troubled that my library did not have a copy (as I’m sure we all know by now, I have difficulty convincing myself to purchase anything I haven’t already read). I finally broke down and bought a second-hand copy and I am delighted that I did – a very worthy $7 investment! Now I shall forever have to hand a sweet and original novel that perfectly encapsulates so many of my reading preferences.