Book Review: Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay
This debut novel combines the wit of Austen with the gritty pluck of Bronte, but with a modern-day setting that adds several unexpected twists and a deeper level of truth and examination than I’d expected.
In Dear Mr. Knightley, main character Samantha (who goes by Sam) is a college grad on the verge of aging out of the support systems available to former foster kids. With the prodding of her mentor, Father John, who runs the group home in which she lives, Sam applies for a grant from an anonymous foundation. This grant will enable her to enroll in graduate school, and will cover all expenses while she pursues her degree. The only catch is that Sam must write a series of letters to her benefactor, who uses the pseudonym George Knightley, knowing it will appeal to Sam’s inner Austen-phile and keep his true identity a secret.
Sam’s life has not been easy, and she is plagued by self-doubt. She’s spent all her life feeling unloved and unwanted, and has hidden herself away in the pages of her beloved books. When anxious or faced with a need to connect with people, she hides behind her characters, quoting Lizzy Bennet or Emma or even Edmond Dantes — which lets her keep her walls intact, and ensures that anyone who tries to reach out to her will run in the opposite direction.
But once Sam receives her grant and starts her graduate program in journalism, she realizes that her walls are crumbling — and that she needs to let them. She can’t succeed as a writer if she keeps her heart hidden away; she can’t connect as a friend if she refuses to let anyone know her. As Sam narrates her tale via letters to Mr. Knightley, we witness her fears, her doubts, her pain, and her glimmers of joy. We delight with her when she sees new possibilities, but we can’t help but want to cry every time poor wounded Sam seems to be making another counter-productive decision based on insecurity and lack of confidence.
I enjoyed the writing style here very much. The entire book is told via Sam’s letters to Mr. Knightley, so it’s all first-person and very immediate. She writes from her heart to her anonymous correspondent, allowing herself the freedom in her letters to reveal herself in all the ways she’d never do with a real person. While occasionally seeming more naive than seems reasonable for a 23-year-old, I could suspend my disbelief based on the facts of Sam’s life. If she seems to have odd ideas about friendship, connection, and relationships, it’s understandable, given that she bounced from foster family to foster family, experienced disastrous encounters with her real parents, and finally ended up at the group home for the remainder of her teen and early adult years.
If you happened to read my blog yesterday (here), then you may have seen my mini-freak-out about finding out that a book I was reading was listed on Amazon as “Christian fiction”. This is the book that triggered all of that. And it’s puzzling to me. Had I not come across that designation on Amazon, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to think of this book as anything other than contemporary fiction. Yes, there were passages, especially toward the end, where Sam is encouraged toward “surrender” and finding joy in faith. But it’s not heavy-handed, I didn’t feel like the book itself was proselytizing in any way, and the references to characters’ faith and beliefs felt organic and reasonable within the context of the story. What I had feared might be a problem for me really wasn’t. So, after much ado about nothing, all’s well that ends well! (Sorry… )
The book is a quick read, but it’s not fluffy. It does seem that things always work out for Sam in a big way. Too sugar-coated, perhaps? Yes, it can seem like a fairy tale at points, the way the grants, the internships, the supportive people always come through just when needed. But that is balanced, for the most part, by a refusal to gloss over the harder parts of Sam’s life, so truly, even if it seems unlikely that things could work out so well in real life, there’s no doubt that Sam has earned all that comes her way by the end.
I mentioned earlier that I liked the writing style — and I really did, except for a certain phrasing oddity that kept jumping out at me: Whenever characters use the work “couple”, it’s phrased as “a couple papers”, “a couple internships”, “a couple days ago”. What happened to the “of”??? Is this a regional quirk, perhaps? I have no idea, but it really bugged me. This is a minor quibble, though; for the most part, I enjoyed Sam’s voice very much. Some epistolary novels seem forced, using the letter format as a gimmick that doesn’t always allow for fully fleshed-out storytelling. This is not the case in Dear Mr. Knightley: Through Sam’s letters, we get insight into her heart and mind in a way that might not have worked otherwise, and because we know that Sam herself is a skilled writer, it makes sense that her letters are so articulate and thoughtful.
If you’ve read the 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, then the secrets and resolution of Dear Mr. Knightley won’t be a surprise. But even knowing how it would work out, I still enjoyed the author’s skill in weaving the backbone of the older book into this fresh novel, finding a way to take a set of circumstances that might seem old-fashioned and apply them to a modern setting in a way that’s believable.
I’m glad that I didn’t let the genre issue keep me from exploring and enjoying this touching, delightful book. Skillfully weaving together threads of classic literature into a modern-day setting that rings true, Dear Mr. Knightley is a lovely look at the journey of a special young woman. I’m happy to have read it, and I’m happy to recommend it.
Title: Dear Mr. Knightley
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Thomas Nelson via NetGalley