Book Review: The Letter

Kathryn Hughes’ compelling novel, The Letter, takes place in England and Ireland, and toggles between the early days of World War II and the 1970s.

While processing donated clothes where she volunteers at a thrift store in Manchester, England, Tina discovers an unposted letter in the pocket of a man’s old suit. The letter is obviously very old and she can’t resist opening it. Written by a distraught young man to the woman he loves, the letter apologizes for his behavior when he learned the woman was pregnant. Tina’s curiosity drives her to learn more about the letter and the obvious tragedy behind it. Why wasn’t the letter delivered? Who were these people? In any event, the project takes her mind off her own troubles dealing with Rick, her abusive husband.

The story goes back to 1938, to the home of a domineering father, a doctor, his wife, a midwife, and their daughter, Chrissie. Chrissie, 19, is seeing Billy a young man whom her father disapproves. Much to her intense dismay, she discovers she is pregnant. When her father learns of her condition, he immediately sends her to live with his wife’s sister in Ireland.

The story goes into some detail about the horror of unwed mothers being sent to convents and the harsh treatment they endured, invariably ending with relinquishing their babies to adoptive families.

The Letter held my rapt fascination as it weaves the stories of Tina and Rick in the 1970s and Chrissie and Billy in the late 1930s. As Tina delves into the story, another character appears, an American, which adds to the mystery.

I enjoyed The Letter, even though some of the harsh treatment depicted, though believable, was hard to read. The author does a good job of describing the attitudes and conditions of the day of both generations.

Book Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Major Pettigrew

Helen Simonson’s debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, is a delightful, charming story centered around Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired).

In the small English countryside village of Edgecombe St. Mary, Major Pettigrew, a widower, is attracted to a lovely widow, Pakistani shopkeeper, Mrs. Jasmina Ali. Although Mrs. Ali was born in Great Britain and, in fact, has never been to Pakistan, she follows many of the traditions of her culture.

The Major and Mrs. Ali are drawn together by their love of literature and loneliness resulting from the loss of their spouses, but soon find themselves caught up in stronger feelings than mere friendship and a good pot of tea.

When they attend a country club program that spirals out of control, they find their relationship threatened. The village considers the Major a pillar of their community, while regarding Mrs. Ali as a foreigner.

The author, Helen Simonson, was born in England and raised in a small village. The English humor and way of expression is part of the enchantment of this novel. At one point the Major finds himself in a stressful situation. “He calmed his voice to a tone suitable for placating large dogs or small, angry children.” Great emphasis is placed on tradition, the importance of one’s family, and appearances. The threat of change can be one’s undoing, or can it be a good thing?

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a fun read, but it also has its moments of truth, issues most of us face in our modern world. I loved spending time in the English mindset, particularly of an older man happily set in his ways. And I particularly appreciated Major Pettigrew’s wit. To learn more about the author, visit http://www.helensimonson.com/

Book Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach (Anchor Books), a novella by Ian McEwan, is a burst of fresh air, a book that swiftly moves along and took my heart with it.

Both virgins on their wedding night, Florence and Edward can only imagine what the evening will hold. They eat dinner in the honeymoon suite as they gaze out onto Chesil Beach. Florence tries not to think about what will soon happen; Edward hopes he’ll know what to do and when to do it.

The book, set in England in 1962, flashes back to when they met and how their love gradually blossomed. Although a university graduate, Edward’s vocation was still illusive. Florence, however, never doubted her choice as a professional musician. Their differences melt away as their love develops.

Back to their wedding night, Edward anxiously begins to make love as he has so often fantasized. Florence, overwhelmed with this sudden closeness feels herself mentally backtracking. The inevitable plays itself out, but not as they expect.

I found this small book haunting, yet filled with compassion. McEwan is a master at detachment while evoking intimate details. On Chesil Beach is a profound novel, a story that demonstrates that what isn’t said can transform lives.