Title: Love Letters
Author: Katie Fforde
Length: 400 pages
My star rating: ★ ★
“[C]lichés would simply not do”…unless you’re Katie Fforde.
Laura Horsley is a twenty-six-year-old English bookshop employee who happens to meet a headstrong publishing agent at a function she put together. The bookshop is soon to close, and the agent insists that Laura help her wealthy niece organize a literary festival, though Laura is reluctant to do so. One of the sponsors threatens to rescind his support if they cannot convince the flash-in-the-pan author Dermot Flynn to attend. Laura, who idolizes the hermit-like Flynn, agrees to go to Ireland with her new friend Monica in hopes of doing just that. In jest, he agrees to come as long as she’ll sleep with him. Trouble and melodrama ensues.
When I picked up Love Letters, I wanted a quick, fun read.
Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed. Love Letters is neither quick nor fun. It’s just boring, boring, boring.
This is due in large part to the unbearable main character, Laura. At first, she seemed to have the potential to be likable, if dull. She quickly devolved into a one-note pessimist. Having a heroine whose sole interest is books may seem like a good idea for a novel, or at least a cute, slightly ironic one, but it makes for a pretty flat character. There’s nothing wrong with having a shy and bookish MC, of course. Making her wishy-washy—indecisive but rash; anxious, socially awkward and self-deprecating (when it’s convenient), yet somehow as confident as a queen with a bit of whiskey in her—only compounds her dullness, however. The implication is that Laura is “not like other girls,” which is so old—if so many girls think or seem like they’re unique and different, are they not like those other girls, at least?
And she suffers from insta-love, which is handled as clumsily here as in most YA novels. What’s the point of a romance if the characters don’t actually go through the process of falling in love with one other?
Other characters chide her for being too boring and tell her to live a little (and her friend Monica can’t believe that she’s still a virgin at the ripe old age of twenty-six). While I didn’t appreciate this on principle, I can understand why—a book needs a plot and a compelling cast of characters, even a romantic comedy.
Sadly, Laura also has a Sassy Gay Friend (sigh). He’s so one-dimensional that he is better left forgotten.
And then there’s Dermot Flynn—whom one of the other characters dismisses as “Daniel O’Flaherty or whoever it was,” because he’s Irish so it’s all the same, right?—the love interest. He is Handsome, Charming, Irresistible, etc. He’s also a rather stereotypical Irishman, and not in a good way—he’s seen as lazy, is a terrible flirt/womanizer, and has a devil-may-care attitude about all of it. According to the blurb, he’s “temperamental,” too. Ah, well. At least he wasn’t a red-haired drunk, too.
And speaking of Irish stereotypes…
Imagine, ninety years from now, picking up a German romance novel with a fun cover. You read the blurb and discover that the love interest happens to be Israeli. The author’s even dedicated it to “Israel and Israelis”! What could go wrong?
But by page 40, you realize that the stereotypes spewed by many of the characters about Israel and Jewish men are supposed to be funny. Worse, the love interest is about as stereotypical as you can get. And this is supposed to be cute and charming instead of uncomfortable.
Okay, okay—maybe that comparison is a little over-the-top (not if you ask Tim Pat Coogan). The point, though, is that Love Letters is not only dreadfully boring and full of stock characters, but that Katie Fforde’s ideas about Ireland and Irish people are…well, kind of embarrassing. I hesitate to call them offensive—I doubt an English chick-lit author espousing outdated attitudes in a badly-written novel is enough to bother many actual Irish people—but embarrassing, yes, definitely.
For instance, Monica exclaims:
“Irish men are all awful womanizers!”
That statement is bad enough on its own, but then he turns out to be an actual awful womanizer.
And while they’re at waiting for the tardy Flynn to show up to the Ballyfitzpatrick festival, this happens:
“What time is he due on?” asked Monica.
“About ten minutes ago,” said Laura. “He’s late.”
“Oh, don’t be saying your man is late,” said a friendly man who was leaning on the same table. “I’ll get us all a drink to pass the time with.” …
The man handed each girl a glass of brown liquid. Laura took hers and wondered if they sold sherry by the tumbler everywhere, or if it was only this particular venue. Only it wasn’t sherry, it was whiskey, and it was neat.
After watching Laura’s range of expressions from horrified realization of what she was drinking to appreciation as the fiery liquid warmed her, Monica said, “We may as well be drunk as the way we are.”
Laura wondered how much longer it would be before Monica would start saying, “top o’ the morning” and “begorrah.”
I’m wondering, too—at least Fforde shows a moment of self-awareness here.
And you know, it wouldn’t be Ireland if people don’t get drunk at the pub! (There’s nothing wrong with pubs, but Fforde shows her readers only pubs, and farms and almost nothing else of Ireland—at least as far as I was willing to read.)
“I do so know for sure,” said Laura, falling unconsciously into the local speech pattern and swaying slightly.
This is sort of reasonable, because some people do pick up the accents and/or “speech patterns” of people after a certain period of time (especially if they had a pint of straight whiskey). However, “I do so know for sure” does not adequately show the local pattern of Ballyfitzpatrick, unless they all sound like teenage girls, and the author otherwise failed to show what those patterns might be. Mostly, it sounds as if Laura is drunkenly embarrassing herself.
And Laura later says:
“Now I know what the difference between an English breakfast – high tea, whatever – and an Irish one is: size.”
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that statement, except that she mentions these big “Irish breakfasts” at least ten more times within the next fifty pages.
More dismissive comments from Monica:
“…I think the time in the bar got me in the mood for Ireland, all that singing, fiddle-playing and the drum thing.”
Because all that’s important about Ireland is its big breakfasts, flirtatious men, and its music. I love Irish music as well, but come on. Ireland is a country, not a kitsch.
And finally, this happens:
One collie jumped up and left saliva on her arm.
“What do you think you’re doing, you miserable hound of hell! Frightening the poor girl out of her wits like that! You’ll have her thinking we have no manners in Ireland – if she doesn’t think that already!”
Considering Dermot made his cooperation conditional on Laura sleeping with him, of all things, she probably does already think that, though Fforde doesn’t go very far to make her readers think otherwise.
Again, it probably seems like I’m making too much of this, but honestly, there’s been so much tension between Ireland and England for so long—why continue relying on stereotypes (“Irish men are womanizers,” orderly-and-quiet-England vs. wild-and-lively Ireland)? It’s just so lazy. And then to dedicate the book to “Ireland and Irishmen”!
On top of all of that, the writing is stilted, too—and it’s not particularly good. Repetitive adverbs and adjectives galore! Somebody buy Ms. Fforde a thesaurus. Even the dialogue came off as unnatural, as if every character was reading from a script.
I have nothing against chick lit; I usually like it when it’s interesting, funny, or at least mildly entertaining, even if it’s often predictable. This book just dragged and I could not invest myself in either the story or the awful characters, so I gave up.
Not worth it.
P.S.: This is the third book I’ve read this year that was set in Ireland. Of those, it has the highest rating. Sigh.