Wednesday, 5 March 2014

More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton

I would love it if you would write to me next time we are apart... It is partly about having the letter to go through again (like Gran always says, you can't re-read a phone call). But it isn't just that, because you can save an email and open it up again whenever you want. or even print it out and keep it. It's also the idea of having the paper that you touched, that you looked at while you thought of the words -- and then the writing itself, telling me how you were feeling by how the words are flowing along smoothly, or scrawled in a great rush, or uneven and halting.
Although this is from a love letter in today's book, it applies equally well to any handwritten letter between friends, and eloquently describes the pleasure I've taken in sending cards and letters in the Month of Letters Challenge (now sadly ended for another year), the ongoing Postal Reading Challenge and now, in Postcrossing, in which complete strangers from anywhere in the world send each other postcards.

More Than Love Letters isn't only about handwritten mail -- the story is told in letters, email, excerpts from the minutes of meetings, even the odd newspaper cutting. It begins with a letter from Margaret, a teacher in her first job, to MP for Ipswich Richard Slater, to complain about VAT charged on sanitary protection -- not a cause he feels immediately drawn to. She follows up with various complaints about lack of bins for dog mess in local parks and so on, and he mentally categorises her as a mad old bat and ignores her, concentrating instead on trying to worm his way into the good graces of the Prime Minister (Ruler of the World, as Richard calls him). All very New Labour. Meanwhile, Margaret is settling into her new home, getting to know her landlady (another letter-writer), joining a local women's collective which runs a hostel for homeless women, and staying in touch with her Gran and with her friend Becs. It's only when Margaret threatens to tell the ROTW -- by now labelled the Rotweiler in Richard's mind -- that he isn't taking his constituents' complaints seriously, that Richard suggests she attend his surgery. And when he meets her, he's smitten.

Although there are moments of high comedy in this very amiable novel, it belies its slightly chick-lit cover. I'd defy anyone not to be moved by the plight of Helen, one of the hostel residents, and there are other sadnesses too. Margaret's Gran is reaching the age when she is finding managing on her own difficult, landlady Cora misses her husband who is absent on the oil rigs -- they all tell their stories through their letters. And if Margaret's idealism and fervour might be too much unadulterated, there are plenty of voices here to vary the tone and pace of the book: for a first novel it's written with a great deal of assurance. Rosy Thornton has gone on to write more challenging books since: amongst others, Hearts and Minds turns the Cambridge academic setting she's familiar with into a thoughtful, Pym-ish human comedy, while Ninepins* focuses on a mother-daughter relationship in an oddly claustrophobic novel, given the wonderfully realised sweep of its fenland backdrop. Both are books to read again.

Although I chose More Than Love Letters as a light (re-)read and with an ulterior motive -- wanting an epistolary novel to finally kick-off my Postal Reading -- it was pleasantly rewarding, not least because Thornton is that rare author, one whose characters can make jokes that are actually funny for the reader!


* Edited later to link to my other reviews of Rosy Thornton's books, just in case people are interested:
Ninepins
Tapestry of Love


16 comments:

  1. I hope my local library has a copy of this one. It sounds like a nice read.

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    1. Hope you find it, Tracy. All her books are worth reading, even when - as in Ninepins - they are rather darker.

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  2. I love this book. It was my first encounter with Rosy and though it's no longer my favourite of her books (Hearts and Minds is), that doesn't mean I think any less of it! I reread it again recently and found it just as funny and touching as I did the first time.

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    1. I was convinced that Hearts and Minds would remain my favourite whatever else Rosy wrote, because she did the academic setting so superbly, but then Ninepins moved, I thought, into a new league.

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  3. You are right, the cover would make me expect a piece of chic lit, but your description clearly shows it isn't. I like books that tell credible stories of people you imagine could be in your circle of friends and acquaintances. And if the stories are told in such an unusual way, all the better!

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    1. Publishers don't seem to appreciate that that those pale blues and pinks put off many readers. When I bought this one, it was only the author's name on the spine that made me pick it up - if I hadn't already known her work, I'd have gone straight past it on the shelf.

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  4. I've had this one on my radar for several years and not got to it. Having read your review I think I will now make more of an effort as I do like Rosy Thornton's writing. I thought the one set in France, The Tapestery of Love, was superb.

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    1. I know with you I'm preaching to the converted, Cath :-) On the face of it, this is a fairly straightforward, simple story, but then she brings something extra to it. I like authors who take evident pleasure in words (though I have a post coming up which is going to have something to say on that subject!)

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  5. I love Rosy Thornton's work and you've reminded me that I still have 'Ninepins' sitting on my kindle to read. Something to look forward to at the weekend, perhaps.

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    1. That sounds like an excellent way of spending the weekend, Alex.

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  6. I have this on my list to hopefully read this year. I am glad you enjoyed the reread!

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    1. Thanks, Kailana - hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

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  7. Sounds like a perfect read for the Postal Reading challenge -- going on my list. I've been doing so poorly at my own challenge this year! Too many challenges + extreme work reading = time just flying by... ;)

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    1. I do sympathise about "extreme work reading" - what a truly superb phrase! I'm about to disappear into some of that myself and may not re-emerge until April :-(

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  8. I just picked this up off my shelf last evening but put it back and chose another book. Am amazed to come here and read the title. I'll save your post to read when I do read it.

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    1. I'll look forward to hearing what you think, Nan.

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