The cover illustration of The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyes both drew me in and made me wary of the story. That intense bluish tone, the longing gaze between lovers against the vivid London skyline caught my eye. I admit I'm a sucker for those old-fashioned sepia-tone (or tinted in this case) photos, because they make me curious to know who those people were. I will at least look twice and then a story about separated lovers and lost letters is something of a hook for me. However, I don't do well lately with mushy love stories. I like happy endings as much as the next person but there has to be a dash of reality there as well (preferably reality with a dash of romance). So I was pleasantly surprised by this story. Okay, it is a love story, actually two as there are parallel/intertwined stories going on, but it also had a little something extra which made it feel weightier than your garden variety romance.
Moyes juxtaposes two love affairs that take place forty years apart with interesting and satisfying results. In 1960 Jennifer Stirling wakes in a hospital room battered and confused. Her short term memory is hazy, so she doesn't recall the circumstances that put her there, but her husband assures her she'll be okay. It's better not to talk about the car accident and simply put it behind her and move on. She's a society wife with an elegant home, a closet full of beautiful clothes, a housekeeper and a tight knit circle of friends with whom they often socialize with. Laurence is a successful businessman who has a string of productive mining companies and certain expectations from a wife to keep up appearances. When Jennifer returns home, she feels almost as though she is starting from scratch, so foreign does Laurence and her life feel to her. As she explores her house to try and reorient herself she discovers a number of letters, passionate love letters, addressed to her but signed simply B. But she has no memory of this B. and what he meant to her.
From there the story moves forward and backward in time between what happened before and after the accident. While vacationing on the French Riviera with their friends, Laurence agrees to be interviewed by a reporter from a British newspaper. Anthony O'Hare is a hardened reporter, more comfortable covering a bloody anticolonial uprising in Africa than dealing with rich businessmen and their selfish wives. He calls Jennifer a spoiled tai tai, not realizing she's overheard him. When she calls him on it later he at least has the grace to apologize and begins to realize that behind her perfect facade there is an unexpected depth to her. She's graceful and dignified but perhaps a little unhappy, too, in her life--a life so smooth and perfect on the surface but not at all lovely underneath. So begins their ill-fated romance filled with misunderstandings, crossed letters and missed opportunities. The story moves rapidly to a climactic denouement, where the reader discovers just what happened during Jennifer's accident, but that's not the end.
Moving forward to 2003 thirtyish Ellie Haworth is involved with a married man and her affair is engulfing her life. Her friends know it's not good for her, and maybe in the back of her mind she knows it, too, but she can't and doesn't want to untangle herself from it. But it affects her work as a journalist. Her work suffers due to her preoccupations with her love life putting her job in jeopardy. When she finds a love letter in a file she's working from, which has sat hidden away in the paper's library for four decades she's drawn into this secret affair--compelled to find out whether the woman left her husband and met her lover to run away with him.
This is a story that sounds like it could easily have fallen into a trap of sentimentality, doesn't it? Moyes, however, places her characters in difficult positions without always letting them take the easy way out. She convincingly creates a world of claustrophobia for Jennifer. As little more than a trophy wife, and raised to be so, there are few opportunities for her. She finds she must choose passion or practicality, but following her heart will come at a steep price. And Ellie's life is filled with complications, mostly of her own import. She, too, learns that matters of the heart come at a cost. Moyes is adept at portraying life in the 1960s very vividly. The story is wrapped up in the events of the day with its restrictive attitudes and double standards for women as well she touches on the tragic events of the Congo and bad business practices which caused illnesses that were subsequently covered up.
I was interested to read that the UK edition of this book includes actual love letters--the US edition does not. As well the format was slightly changed. Ellie's story is not introduced until after Jennifer's and Anthony's is told, though the two plotlines do eventually come together at end. The UK edition also has quite a different feel with a very different cover illustration.
This was a very enjoyable read for me. It makes me all the more anxious to pull out my copy of Foreign Fruit, which I bought years ago.
Iris at Iris on Books read this earlier this year. You can also check out a review at Vulpes Libris and Ted's very insightful post at Bookeywookey. Jojo Moyes won the 2011 Romantic Novel of the Year for The Last Letter to Your Lover. Next time I show my face at the public library I'll be paying a fine on this book, which I dropped into the return bin three days late. It's a fine worth paying, but I promise to try and be better next time.