Sunday, September 1, 2013

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

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. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG-13, 5 stars
Trigger warnings: death, war, mentions of miscarriage and abortion

Oh this book, where to begin? I suppose I could start with the fact that about 20 or so pages from the end, I started crying and didn’t stop until well after I had finished. I didn’t anticipate this being a crying book (and I cry a lot when I read. Actually, I just cry a lot in general), and I’m still not completely sure why it emotionally impacted me so strongly, but I’m glad it did. I always consider it a form of praise if a book elicits a visible emotional reaction from the reader. Letters from Skye succeeded in that many times over.

As you might be able to guess from the title, Letters from Skye is a novel told entirely in letters. It certainly isn’t the first novel to do so, but it’s definitely the most well-done of the ones I’ve seen. This works so well in part because the voice is so genuine. Brockmole did an excellent job of writing characters with distinct and different voices. As an American, Davey uses different vocabulary from Elspeth, and since Margaret spent most of her life in Edinburgh, her letters have less of the Scottish highlands language than Elspeth’s do. The writing style took me straight into the time period, and the different letters took me from Chicago to Skye to London.

The period details worked especially well at not making the story overly sentimental. As a hopeless romantic, this book checked all the right boxes for me, and with its World War era atmosphere (the commonness of writing letters, the sense of urgency in relationships), I didn’t feel like any of it was over the top. This is a love story, so if romances aren’t your thing, this might not be a good choice for you. However, it isn’t sappy or overdone.

I think my biggest disappointment with Letters from Skye is that it isn’t a true story. The language was so real, and the characters felt so alive, that there were times when I almost convinced myself it was true, that Brockmole merely found a trunk of letters somewhere and compiled them into a book. In addition, there was one letter that I thought was borderline unrealistic. By the end of the letter, I though the details included were justified, but it still seemed a little like maid-and-butler talk. That’s only one letter out of a whole book, though--hardly worth noting.

Fans of historical fiction and romance novels are likely to enjoy Letters from Skye, and do to the skillful writing, I also recommend it to those who favor literary fiction. Or everyone. That works, too.

PS--A big heck yeah to all the reviewers who wrote their reviews as a letter. I wanted to, but I’m very particular about keeping my format. :P

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