Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole

I love letters. That's one of the reasons I love holiday season: all of those non-bill, non-junk mail things in the mailbox. I love reading cards from friends. Even better are the letters that still sometimes trickle in during the year when I least expect them in this age of internet, making a different sort of connection between friends. And since I love getting my own letters, it probably isn't much of a surprise that I thoroughly enjoy the concept of the epistolary novel. In Jessica Brockmole's novel, Letters From Skye, there are actually two sets of letters telling the story, a sort of double epistolary novel, one set from World War I and the second during World War II, two times when letter writing was really paramount.

Elspeth Dunn is a poet living on the Isle of Skye. She isn't published far and wide so when she receives fan mail from a college boy, David Graham, living in America, she is surprised and a little thrilled to hear his opinion. And so she writes back to him, developing a teasing and witty dialogue between the two of them as they come to know each other through their letters. Elspeth confides the story of her days on the remote Scottish isle with her husband gone to sea and then to war and David, soon called Davey, entertains Elspeth with his madcap college boy adventures as well as admits his reluctance to fall in with his father's plan for his life. The letters between Elspeth and Davey are lovely and revealing and build a deep and abiding relationship between the two of them so that when Davey enlists in World War I, Elspeth can only hope that her very best friend, a man she's never met and of whom she fully suspects that she might feel more for than mere friendship, will survive the terrors he's off to face.

Interwoven with Elspeth and Davey's letters are letters between Elspeth's daughter Margaret and her fiancé, Paul, who has enlisted to fight in World War II. Elspeth has counseled Margaret not to let the advent of the war push her into a hasty engagement or marriage that she might regret in the end. Although Margaret and Paul started as friends, their letters lead them to a deeper intimacy with each other so that they can truly know their own hearts, an unexpected blessing of their wartime separation. But then Margaret receives a call that her mother has disappeared after their home in Edinburgh sustained some damage in a bombing. Armed only with a letter that serves to deepen the mystery of where her mother has gone, Margaret is determined to find Elspeth. To do so, she must solve the mystery of the letter by traveling back to Skye and piecing together the story of her family and her mother's long ago flight from the island.

The letters alternate mainly between those Elspeth and Davey sent each other and those that Margaret sends Paul. Each set of letters runs the gamut from happiness and joy to worry and fear. They are generally charming but set during the wars as they are, they also contain threads of the horrors and desperation in which the world was wrapped, both in the nineteen-teens and the nineteen-thirties and forties. As the letters unfold, the mystery of what happened to Elspeth in the aftermath of the bomb and where she went deepens, just as the story of what finally transpired to stop Elspeth and Davey's correspondence does. Using letters for characters to get to know each other is a wonderful technique since they show both what the letter writer wants the recipient to see but also reveal a lot more than that about a person as well. And the reader learns all about the characters at the same pace as they learn about each other. The way that the narrative was structured allowed the tension to build steadily and while at least one of the revelations was not a surprise, there was far more to the story than just this one surprise. Brockmole has done a nice job in capturing both a light-hearted teasing in the letters and a much deeper emotional connection as well. People looking for an unconventional love story or interested in life at home during both of the World Wars and the way both of those terrible events touched one family will enjoy this sweeping, enjoyable, and sweet romance.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.


  1. This has been on my TBR for a while now. Like this review.

  2. I really enjoyed this book. It wasn't a great novel for me, since it focused a lot on the romance, but I'm a sucker for epistolary novels.


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