The Lost Art of Letter Writing: Menna van Praag

★★★

Recent travelling has got in the way of blogging again. I’m not complaining, mind you: this trip involved Rome, Naples and a mind-boggling amount of fabulous art. Perhaps I’ll post about it when my brain has calmed down slightly. Otherwise, life has been extremely busy (in a good way), and so tonight I picked up a novel for the first time in a month – shame on me! I was looking for something undemanding and The Lost Art of Letter Writing seemed a perfect choice for an autumn evening with the nights drawing in. It turned out to be a bit too self-consciously quaint for my taste, but it’s as cosy and feel-good as a page of motivational quotes. It centres on our heroine, Clara, who runs a very special stationer’s shop in Cambridge. Here, customers are invited to write the one heartfelt letter they’ve always meant to send, and Clara gets satisfaction from helping them tie up their loose ends. When she discovers some of her own, in the form of a bundle of old family papers, her curiosity propels her into a serendipitous adventure.

Clara’s shop is a treasure-trove of handmade paper, matching envelopes and exquisite handcrafted pens, made by her gifted grandfather and imbued with the power to help the writer say whatever needs to be said. When a visitor arrives, Clara instinctively knows the right kind of paper to offer them, and the most suitable pen – and then they sit at the shop’s beautiful desk to finally express whatever they’ve been bottling up. But Clara has a secret. She writes letters too. She wanders through Cambridge every evening, glancing into windows and looking out for people who seem to need a word of encouragement or support or companionship. And, when she’s spotted such a person, Clara herself sits down at the desk and finds that the right words just naturally spill out onto her paper. It’s on one of these walks that she spots the widower Edward, still grief-stricken three years after his wife’s death and struggling to parent his young teenage daughter. Edward, Clara realises, needs one of her special anonymous letters. Edward himself is scarcely aware of how far he’s let himself go; but the receipt of this unusual and profoundly insightful missive gives him the courage to start taking control of his life again. It’s a decision that leads to an unexpected visit.

Edward’s neighbours include two young people, both of whom are uncomfortable dealing with others, and who have built cocoons around themselves. There’s Finn, the talented violinist who ploughs all his passion into his music; and Ava, the lonely librarian who is cursed by an unfortunate ‘gift’ which prevents her from making friends. These people are all drawn together in expected ways by a chain reaction which starts with Edward receiving Clara’s letter – or, perhaps, starts even earlier, when Ava pops into Clara’s shop to write a letter to her long-dead sister. As Finn discovers a dazzling new audience for his music, Ava begins to explore a more daring, fulfilling way of life. And Clara herself, who travels to Amsterdam in an effort to discover more about her family history, finds herself very unexpectedly building a new bond, which might just alter the path of her own future. Each of our characters needs to step out of their routine lives and experience something thrilling and new, to help them realise who they really are; but, like Bilbo Baggins setting off on an adventure, they sometimes just need a little push out of the door. In this novel, that ‘push’ comes from a gentle kind of magic.

It feels a bit heartless to criticise the book because it’s so well-meaning, but it does have weaknesses. The characterisation isn’t that strong, except in the striking case of Ross, who seems to leap off the page compared to everyone around him. I found it hard to engage with the other minor characters – and I’m sorry to say that I don’t feel even remotely attached to Finn, who is technically one of the main cast – while I also felt that some of the plotlines weren’t as taut or convincing as they could have been. Greer’s story in particular left me both puzzled and cold. When a character is in such a unique position, you expect to find out a little more about the context – about the purpose – especially in a novel like this, where there is clearly some form of higher power or Fate acting behind the scenes. But we never do get a clearer picture of what is happening to Greer, and once or twice I wondered whether her unusual situation had been chosen simply to add new spice to that old chestnut of a love triangle. I was pleased, though, to find that van Praag doesn’t fall into the trap of just giving everyone a happy ending. Some characters choose short-term happiness at the expense of long-term sorrow, adding rather bleak undertones to the otherwise neat ending.

This was further along the ‘cosy chick-lit’ spectrum than I usually go, so perhaps I just didn’t gel with its spirit. The presence of magic sometimes felt a bit odd too – though I can see that all van Praag’s books are about quirky people using magic in Cambridge, so it’s evidently a personal leitmotif. Please do share your thoughts, if you’ve read it. At present there’s only one other review on LibraryThing, whose writer seems to share my ambivalence about the novel – but there are hordes of very positive reviews on Amazon. I know there are lots of people out there who thoroughly enjoy the escapism of books like this – sweet, otherworldly, slightly cutesy romance – but for me, alas, its appeal was lost in the post.

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