Jojo Moyes is quickly becoming one of my go-to, auto-buy authors. After reading a few of her more recent books, I decided to look into some of her previously published works, and picked up a copy of The Last Letter From Your Lover, which was originally released in 2010.
In Last Letter, we follow two timelines: a contemporary story bookending the novel and then a 1960s story, the major part of the book both in terms of length and where the heart of the tale is concentrated. Within the two timelines, we follow three different narrative arcs, all of which come together by the book’s end.
In the prologue, we meet journalist Ellie Haworth, whose career is suffering while her private life consumes her every waking thought. Ellie is one year into an ill-advised affair with a married man, and despite absolutely no evidence to support her hopes, Ellie can’t help dreaming of the day when she finally gets more from her lover. As part of a retrospective feature at work, Ellie starts going through her newspaper’s archives and comes across an old letter that knocks her socks off. Drenched in romance, the letter-writer (identified only as “B.”) declares:
I’ll be at Platform 4, Paddington, at 7:15 on Friday evening, and there is nothing in the world that would make me happier than if you found the courage to come with me… I’ll be waiting on the platform from a quarter to seven. Know that you hold my heart, my hopes, in your hands.
Ellie doesn’t know who wrote the letter or to whom it was addressed, but she’s reduced to tears by the passion and the emotion. The letter seems to awaken something in Ellie…
From there, the action switches to 1960, in which a pampered, sheltered wife of a very powerful man meets a brash and disrespectful reporter. Jennifer Stirling is beautiful but bored; Anthony O’Hare despises the spoiled society members who flit through life above and apart from the world’s real troubles. Of course, sparks fly between Jennifer and Anthony, but obstacles keep the lovers apart.
In yet a third narrative stream, we see Jennifer waking up in a hospital after a car accident, suffering from amnesia and brought back home by her husband Laurence to recover. Jennifer feels certain that she’s missing something important, but has no idea what has truly happened or what that key piece of information about her past might be.
Eventually, the story streams come together. Ellie traces the mysterious love letter to Jennifer, now in her 60s, and sets out to discover whether the lovers ever did manage to unite and start a new life together. At the same time, Ellie faces some unpleasant truths about her own love life, and must make decisions about who she is and who she wants to be.
I enjoyed Last Letter, although perhaps not quite as much as some of the author’s other novels. The mixed timelines didn’t especially work in favor of narrative tension. After meeting Ellie in the prologue, we don’t see her again until about halfway through the book. Meanwhile, the story of Jennifer and Anthony’s relationship is interwoven with Jennifer’s post-crash story, and sorting out what came first and what resulted is a bit of a challenge.
By the end of the book, I was very invested in Jennifer and Anthony’s story and in finding out what had happened between them, but given the mixed narratives and the shifting point-of-views, it was always a struggle to piece together the actual events versus the characters’ perceptions of events, which were often two different things. I didn’t quite buy the build-up of the love affair or believe how instantly and passionately they fell in love, yet as the story moved forward, it was the descriptions of their thwarted yearnings that were more convincing than their stolen moments together.
Jennifer reminded me strongly of Mad Men‘s Betty Draper, although a less childish and selfish version. Still, she’s the quintessential beautiful but useless society wife, a woman whose job is to be ornamental and a credit to her husband, with no actual skills or education and no chance of forging a life of her own. As the story progresses, it’s heartening to see Jennifer face up to her reality and try to find a way to take control and pursue a path that gives her life meaning, despite the cost.
Ellie’s story is a bit pale by comparison, and the parallels aren’t always comfortable ones. We’re meant to sympathize with and root for this young woman, but it’s hard to do so while she’s enmeshed in a very stupid affair, refusing to acknowledge the real damage she may be doing to herself and to others. An awakening eventually comes, of course, thanks in large part to Ellie’s growing fascination with Jennifer and her exposure to what real love looks like. Perhaps Ellie is meant to be the reader’s entry point into the story, but Jennifer is the far more compelling character.
One especially fun feature of this novel is the lead-in page for each chapter, each featuring an excerpt from a real break-up letter, text, or email. Some are wistful, some are harsh, and some are downright comical (like the text message “U n me finished”), but all add a touch of spice and poignancy to this sentimental and occasionally sorrowful book.
All in all, The Last Letter From Your Lover is an engaging and often moving look at how love doesn’t always work out, how life can get in the way, and how sometimes it isn’t too late to start over and find happiness. For those new to Jojo Moyes, I’d probably suggest starting elsewhere, but fans of the author shouldn’t miss this one.
Title: The Last Letter From Your Lover
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: First published in UK in 2010
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction