4 OUT OF 10
I had massively massive issues with this book. There are pencil scribblings in the margins of almost every page, frustrated and annoyed with the characters and their motivations (or lack thereof).
Letters from Skye is a novel told entirely in letters, alternating chapters between two generations. It begins with a fan letter from David Graham, a young American student, to married poet Elspeth Dunn residing on the remote Isle of Skye off the northwest coast of Scotland. Elspeth responds to David and a relationship between them begins, lasting through the years of World War I.
In between David and Elspeth’s letters is the correspondence of Margaret, Elspeth’s daughter, and her World War II RAF pilot fiance. During an air raid, Margaret discovers some old letters in her mother’s possession and shortly thereafter, Elspeth disappears, leaving Margaret nothing but questions–who is “Davey”? Who is this “Sue” he writes to? AND WHO IS MARGARET’S FATHER? (Dun dun DUH!)
Writing a book in the format of letters seems like a writer’s shortcut, a way to tell the story without ever getting too deeply connected to the characters. We never get to be inside anyone’s head, we just get to read what they were willing to write to someone else. It feels like a cheat.
This story could have been so much more fleshed out, the reader empathizing and sympathizing with them, if the writer had simply let us get inside.
I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society several years ago, and I enjoyed it. Not in a way that I thoroughly loved the characters and wanted to reread the book every year, but as a delightful little trifle that didn’t make me think. This book, in the same format, gave the same feeling (which I can only assume was the writer’s intention).
Except I was yelling at the characters for most of it, because they were the most self-centered, frustrating pair–and David clearly needed a swift kick up the backside. Giving Elspeth the nickname of “Sue” fairly early on, and then continuing to call her that for the rest of their relationship–UGH. Did not endear him to me for a moment.
(By the way, “Sue” is not now, nor has it really ever been, a great name for a romantic lead. And it’s particularly irritating–for this reader at least–since it’s not actually her name.)
The language was a little anachronistic to say the least, with sentences–written by both David and Elspeth–that should make a woman in 1913 (even one living on some wild Scottish isle) blush, and feel not just a little scandalized. Her referring to a wish for improving the size of her bust? Him scaling the walls of a girls’ dormitory to spend the night with a coed? FOR CRYIN’ OUT LOUD, it’s 1913. Women were taking steps toward political equality, but seriously? This is AWFUL.
And they both flat-out ignored her husband. He didn’t exist, except brief mentions in passing. It provides little sympathy for their situation. I wanted to get into their heads, to understand, to feel, to see what they see, to get why this is okay, why we should root for them. Written from a third person perspective, switching points of view among the main characters, would have let us get into their heads and not see them as such silly selfish people. It would have fleshed out the flat, static characters.
It would have let me enjoy their story and their plight and not want to throw the book across the room.
Elspeth’s daughter Margaret was much better written, and I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters of letters between her and her fiance. They felt real and decent, and reading her search for her mother and answers to secrets long buried was a lot of fun. But I have to wonder–how in the world does a young woman go more than twenty years without attempting to suss out her own origins? Sure, she’s asked her mother who has kept buttoned up on the subject the entire time, but why didn’t Margaret try sooner, snooping through her mother’s papers and drawers, looking for any clue to her life before Margaret was born? The curiosity and stubbornness that come through in her letters makes one wonder why she never tried before.
The ending was good–incredibly predictable, but good. And would have been a whole lot more satisfying if the two leads hadn’t pissed me off so much before. They were much more likeable people told through her daughter’s eyes then they ever were writing themselves. Sadly, out of all the characters, only David seemed to have grown by the end of the novel–which was a huge relief, but still. I want more from my characters. Neither Elspeth or Margaret had a character arc to speak of.
When I read, I want to connect with characters (pretty sure this is fairly standard for most readers). I want them to inhabit my head, to force me to stay up late night after night, to want to desperately know what happens next. In this book, I can see what comes next from a mile away. And these characters didn’t have the depth and magnetism to draw me in and want to hear more. I just didn’t care what was going to happen to them after the book ended.