Helen, the heroine of The Love Letter by Cathleen Schine, lives a charmed life. Here are some reasons to dislike her:
- Helen, who is a fit, healthy, attractive woman in her forties is the single mother of a pre-teen daughter who gives her so little trouble that her daughter hardly features in this novel. (Jealous, anyone?)
- Her divorce was so amicable that the reader does not learn why her marriage broke down.
- Helen was left so well off financially by her ex-husband on their divorce that she started her own bookshop, which is a successful business. (Is anyone else jealous yet, or is it only me?)
The story is set around Helen’s book shop in the sea side town town of Pequot. (Okay, now the green eyed monster is really starting to take hold of me, regardless of Helen not being real. To live in a sea side town and have a successful bookshop is the stuff of dreams).
Helen’s personality is charismatic and her behaviour charming, although somehow, she is not particularly likeable. Helen flirts with everyone. She flirts to sells books to customers. She flirts with married male friends. She flirts with her staff, who particularly crave her attention. Helen’s staff, three of whom are college students on their summer holidays, bring her presents and copy her mannerisms.
Helen’s flirting and charm come across as incredibly superficial to the reader. She charms people just because she can. Helen doesn’t seem to particularly care about anyone else except for her daughter, who is away at summer camp. None of the other characters seem to care that Helen is manipulative, and somehow this characteristic becomes another of her charms to them.
The story starts with Helen finding a love letter amongst her mail. The book is set in the not too distant past, when people wrote actual letters to each other, put them in envelopes and sent them through the mail to each other. Computers are mentioned in the story but the internet and email are not.
The love letter is anonymous, addressed to Goat from Ram. In the letter Ram describes thinking of Goat while driving, peeling oranges and asks if being on fire is too banal for Goat. Helen’s wasn’t the sort of love letter that I would like to receive, not that I’ve received many. The nicest (and possibly the only) love letter I ever received was from a boy when I was in high school. I wish I still had it. I don’t remember what he wrote, but for a long time it made me happy to have received it. Helen predictably, had already received a great many love letters, from all sorts of people.
Helen examines her circle of friends, staff and customers but is unable to determine the love letter’s author, or even if the letter was intended for her.
Helen’s attention during her investigation turns to Johnny, one of her casual summer staff. She rules him out as the letter’s author, but despite their age difference (Johnny is twenty and Helen is in her forties) they start an affair. As they fell in love and Helen became more vulnerable, she also became more likeable.
Somehow, Helen’s love affair with a twenty year old also becomes part of her charm. Her mother, who has guessed at Helen’s affair with Johnny, goes so far as to call their romance “very French,” and comments how besotted Johnny is. Have you ever noticed how often characters named Helen are beautiful and irristable? All Helen of Troy’s fault I expect, the connotations of the name ‘Helen’ are so strong.
Helen curiousity regarding the origin of the love letter is eventually satisfied. The ending of The Love Letter is also quite satisfying, despite not being conclusive in some ways. Just as well, my cup of envy would probably runneth over if the book finished with a happily ever after.