An epistle is a letter sent to a person or group of people that is generally elegant, formal and didactic in nature. This is the form of Luanne Rice and Joseph Monninger’s collaborative novel, The Letters.
Sam and Hadley West have lost their only child, Paul, in a plane crash in Alaska, where he had gone to teach. The loss of their son throws their marriage into turmoil and they are now on opposite sides of continent waiting for their divorce to become final. Hadley, an artist, is holed up in a little cottage on an island off the coast of Maine. Sam, a sports journalist, has gone to Alaska in an effort to recreate Paul’s last days and see the site of the plane crash. The Letters (no surpise here) is the shared correspondence between the two as they work through their individual grief and slowly make their way back to each other.
In theory, this sort of novel is fraught with problems from the get-go. First of all, it’s all tell. Dear Hadley, today I did this. Dear Sam, today I thought this. I mean, people don’t write this sort of letter anymore, do they? Geesh, I don’t think people write letters at all anymore and I say this as a life-long letter writer who might write a half dozen letters a year now- most of them scribbled notes. So, as a reader, if you can get past the conceit, you then have to decide whether the novel has the emotional resonance the topic deserves.
I liked The Letters. Hadley and Sam were two people faced with an unbearable tragedy. Their letters allow them to work through their grief, unload some of their anxiety and face up to past mistakes. It also allows them the opportunity (and the reader, too) to trace the trajectory of their lives – from the moment they met to this place they now find themselves…where they need each other more than anything and yet make the very human mistake of pushing each other away.
In less competent hands, The Letters might have been a hot mess, but Rice and Monninger do an admirable job of making Sam and Hadley people with real flaws and their story should be relatable to anyone who has ever lost a child or almost walked away from the very person they need most.