Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am not one to read all of those "extra" Austen novels that are suddenly flooding the market. I'm quite content with the stories Austen herself wrote, thinking of my own writing and how much I would hate to have someone use one of my beloved characters almost 200 years after my death. However, my opinion is in the minority because these "extra" books are insanely popular. There's no point in my beating a dead horse with my protestations, so I figured I had to start somewhere. That somewhere turned out to be Katherine Reay's debut novel, Dear Mr. Knightley.
Novels written in letter format aren't my cup of tea. Where my sister read all of those Dear America books in her childhood, I simply couldn't bring myself to finish even one. It just felt so unnatural, reading someone else's journal or letters. Fortunately for Ms. Reay, her writing voice is strong enough that I adored her lead character, Samantha Moore, after only about 30 pages. One might even say that I "liked it against my will, against my reason." She's young, introverted, led a rough life as a foster kid, and now she's taking graduate courses through the charitable donations of a mysterious local foundation. Her one requirement to have her tuition is paid is that she write regular letters to the foundation's owner, a man who goes by the name of Mr. Knightley. Because Sam chose to retain her sanity by delving into classic literature, she feels she can trust someone who deliberately picks the name of a great literary character, and a good man.
The novel is comprised entirely of letters. That could have gotten old really quick, but it didn't because I empathize with Sam's character. She's timid and hides in her books, and she's a writer like me, albeit she's going to journalism grad school whereas I studied creative writing. I connect to her, and so it made her letters very intimate and relevant to the thoughts and doubts that often plague me. The book is beautifully written, and the characters are thought-provoking and entertaining. It exceeded every expectation I had for it on multiple levels.
Which leads me to the one downside. About 3/4 of the way through the book, a massively important event takes place in Sam's life. It's exciting and thrilling. However, the following letters are composed almost the same way as the previous letters. There's no real reference to the event, no changing of affectionate terms, and knowing Sam as I came to know her, she would have written those later letters differently. The author lost her voice a little bit there. Also, I wasn't all that keen on the identity of Mr. Knightley. I suspected the road would lead there, but I also wished it hadn't because than the story became a little cliche at the end. Mr. Knightley should have been someone else. I even had a suspicion about his identity during a race Sam ran.
The story would have been much more fulfilling for me as a reader without the sappy, slightly contrived ending. I love the romance, and wouldn't want Sam with anyone else, but various elements of that ending simply didn't work for me. Up to that point, the story almost felt like real life, and then it felt like a fairy tale. Which is why I'm giving 4 stars instead of the 5 that I was so willing to bestow up until the final 50 pages of the book. Regardless, Ms. Reay has a great start to her writing career, and I eagerly anticipate her next novel.
For the rest of my reviews, see my page HERE.
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