The Love Letter

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In an era when faxes and electronic mail are common modes of written communication, it is refreshing to read about literate lovers who create missives by hand, only for the eyes of their beloved. In The Love Letter, Cathleen Schine gently explores the private moments and intimate observations shared by Helen MacFarquhar, owner of Horatio Street Books in seaside Pequot and divorced mother of eleven-year-old Emily, with twenty-year-old Johnny Howell. After he takes a summer job in Helen’s bookstore, they are drawn together romantically despite themselves. Using both Helen’s and Johnny’s points of view to tell the story, Schine follows their blossoming romance after Helen’s receipt of an anonymous letter catalyzes her need to love and be loved.

Accidentally coming across this letter at Helen’s house, Johnny cannot help but wonder how someone could feel so passionate about a woman who seems rather self-absorbed and difficult. Yet as he becomes aware of aspects of her personality beyond the critical eye with which she runs her store, he cannot stop thinking about her. He fantasizes about her at work and at home and finds himself drawn to her.

Eventually, Helen and Johnny come together as equals in body and spirit. Their mating dance evolves without much complication beyond their own reticence, as they are both on their own for the summer—Emily is at camp, and Johnny’s parents are conducting scientific experiments at the University of Texas. As the weeks pass and they put aside their insecurities, Johnny matures and Helen discovers that real love has no age limits.

Schine makes it clear that the variance in their ages is Helen’s biggest obstacle to accepting Johnny as a lover. She fears scandal and humiliation if neighbors or Johnny’s parents discover their romantic interlude. In the end, the story’s ironic climax reveals that a more scandalous affair has been kept secret even from Helen. This puts Helen’s own “secret” in a far different perspective, allowing her to accept Johnny’s love and admit her own at last.

The love letter that captures Helen’s and Johnny’s amorous imaginations and becomes the fulcrum of the story is addressed “Dear Goat,” and signed “As Ever, Ram.” It inquires: “How does one fall in love? Do you trip? Do you stumble, lose your balance and drop to the sidewalk, graze your knee, graze your heart? Do you crash to the stony ground? Is there a precipice, from which you float, over the edge, forever?” Helen ponders the universal mysteries of loving as she becomes obsessed with discovering who wrote the letter and, even more important, who was meant to receive it. She begins to notice her neighbors more carefully and curbs her flirtatious behavior with customers as she tries to determine who might be “Goat” and “Ram.”

When she considers that Johnny might be the letter’s author, Helen decides to divert his attention to Jennifer, who is his age and must have something in common with him. She does not know that what they have in common is a fascination with her: Talk about Helen dominates their after-work hours. Johnny’s fascination with her is amplified by his assumption that Helen has received a letter declaring that its author is “on fire” thinking about her. These private words made semipublic, coupled with Johnny’s daily observations of Helen, ignite his own inner flame for her: “His desire was so modest. To put his lips to hers. To feel her hair against his cheek. Just once. And once more.”

As Johnny’s quiet intensity continues to draw Helen to him, she gradually sees the man inside the boy and gets back in touch with the girl within herself. Yet the silent aftermath of the consummation of their attraction confuses Johnny:

Nothing was ever said about the morning they had spent in each other’s arms. Nothing was ever said about anything. And he watched Helen and her customers, and he thought she was just an old fraud, a conjurer who had arranged the mirrors and dimmed the lights and cut him in two with a phony sword.

Schine uses the overwhelming chemistry between Helen and Johnny to pull them back together, with the mysterious love letter providing a reference point for their own romantic insights. The intimacy...

(The entire section is 1754 words.)