The Love Letter Critical Essays

Cathleen Schine

The Love Letter

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In an era of faxes and E-mail, it is refreshing to read about literate lovers who create missives of affection by hand, meant only for the eyes of their beloved. When one such letter winds up in the mail of a flirtatious yet demanding divorcee, she becomes fascinated with the idea of such a passion and finds herself falling for her friend’s son during an idyllic summer. THE LOVE LETTER explores the private moments and intimate observations which bond Helen MacFarquhar, owner of Horatio Street Books in seaside Pequot and divorced mother of eleven-year-old Emily, with college- age Johnny Howell after he takes a summer job in Helen’s bookstore and they are drawn together despite themselves.

Written alternately from Helen’s and Johnny’s points of view, the novel follows their blossoming romance after the mysterious love letter catalyzes Helen’s emotions and is accidentally read by Johnny. Assuming it was written to Helen, he cannot help but wonder how someone can feel so passionate about a woman who seems self-absorbed and demanding to him. Yet he begins to see other aspects of her personality as she unknowingly unveils them and they eventually come together as man and woman. By summer’s end, Johnny matures and Helen discovers real love has no age limits.

The variance in their ages remains an obstacle for Helen, however. She fears scandal and humiliation if neighbors or Johnny’s vacationing parents discover their romantic interludes. In the end, the story’s ultimate irony is that a greater love has been kept a secret even from Helen—her widowed mother Lillian has been having an affair with Miss Scattergoods, the town’s librarian and Johnny’s good friend, and the love letter was written to Lillian. This puts Helens “secret” in perspective and allows her to accept Johnny’s love for her which transcends time and distance once he returns to school.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, May 1, 1995, p. 1553.

Boston Globe. May 28, 1995, p. 32.

Library Journal. CXX, April 1, 1995, p. 126.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 7, 1995, p. 3.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, October 19, 1995, p. 43.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 28, 1995, p. 6.

The New Yorker. LXXI, June 5, 1995, p. 93.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, February 27, 1995, p. 85.

San Francisco Chronicle. June 11, 1995, p. REV3.

The Washington Post. May 3, 1995, p. C2.