Thursday, August 8, 2013

Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brockmole

Ballantine, 2013
304 pp

ARC from publisher -- thank you!

If you've ever been involved in a long-distance relationship, kept up mainly via correspondence with the occasional visit, then this book just might appeal.  As it happens, I met my spouse via the internet about sixteen years ago.   We stayed exclusively on line -- no telephone calls or visits -- for months.  Neither of us was really looking for anything except sharing online great conversation and a sarcastic  sense of humor that showcased our mutual propensities for geekdom and snark.  Once we met, we felt like we knew everything there was to know about each other -- and a year and many plane rides later, the fat lady sang on the long-distance aspect and here we are today.  In Letters From Skye, it's roughly the same sort of scenario, done through letters and the occasional telegram.  There are two different time periods at work in this novel: first, from 1912 to shortly after WWI; second, 1940.  The time periods are interwoven -- the earliest letters and correspondence are between the two main characters David and Elspeth; the later ones are between Elspeth's daughter Margaret and others.  In terms of how to describe it, I'd say that the book is probably most suited to romance readers, although the marketing blurb on the back of my book says it was being promoted to historical fiction readers as well.  Not that I'm sexist or anything, but imho, Letters From Sky  falls easily within the category of women's fiction, and  while I'm not a fan of either romance or women's fiction, it's a light and easy summer read which I'm sure will sell very well to those who like that genre.

The story begins in 1912, when David, a young college student in Illinois, writes a letter to poet Elspeth Dunn to express his admiration for her recently-published book of poems. Elspeth writes back to thank him, and those two letters begin a correspondence that lasts for years, David telling her about his life in college, his girlfriend and then engagement, his problems with his father, and finally, his decision, after the beginning of WWI, to become an ambulance driver overseas to do something for the war effort.  Her correspondence is largely about her life on the Isle of Sky, a place she's never been away from.  As  you might guess, eventually the letters turn into something more, and with David in Europe, eventually plans to meet up are in the works. In 1940, Margaret, who works to help evacuate wartime children to safety, keeps a running correspondence with her boyfriend Paul and with her mother, who cautions her against getting too close to Paul during the war. The two threads merge when  Margaret finds one of her mother's old letters, addressed to someone named "Sue;"  shortly afterwards, Elspeth disappears without a word.  Her absence prompts  Margaret begins another correspondence to find out about her mother's early life, thinking that perhaps it holds a clue as to how to find her.

The idea behind the novel is a really good one and I could relate to the problems and frustrations of maintaining a long-distance relationship mainly by correspondence.  At the same time, I was a little disappointed because once things that I can't reveal cropped up, I figured out how things were going to go and it was just a matter of time just waiting out the obvious.  A few other things niggled:  first,  while David, Elspeth and Margaret take center stage, there were other characters whose contributions to the story  seemed just as important, but they have only more or less walk-on parts here which I thought was a real shame.   Second, thinking of the time period in which the letters between Elspeth and David is set, I had a very hard time imagining some of these conversations  taking place in 1912 -- like for example, Elspeth's response to an early letter of David's going off about women and motherhood.  And speaking of that, it seems like Elspeth's character started out strong, someone feisty and sure of herself, but as time went on, she became more overwrought and simpering, which just plain drove me crazy.  Sadly, while the author takes the time to talk about things like the blowing winds on the Isle of Sky and the beautiful artwork Elspeth's brother created in her mantel piece that incorporated local legends, I really never got that sense of place that transported me there.  And as much as I love historical fiction, this one leaned heavier on the romance and while there are a few decent descriptions of David's time as an ambulance driver during the war, there just isn't that much history incorporated into the story. 

To be very fair, this book is getting really high ratings and rave reader reviews, but as I noted, I'm not the best audience for this one.  However, this is the author's first novel, and I can appreciate all of the research and effort that went into its creation.  I'll recommend it as an easy summer read, and my guess is that it will do very well. 

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