Book Review: Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole
In this romantic look at wartime love, letters hold the key. Letters From Skye is told entirely via letters written during two different but very similar time periods. The main story follows the correspondence that blossoms between poet Elspeth Dunn, on her faraway, windswept Isle of Skye off the northern coast of Scotland, and David Graham, an impetuous American college student who has mustered the courage to write a fan letter to an author he admires. Their correspondence begins in 1912 and continues through the first World War. As Elspeth and David write letters, they come to know one another deeply and intimately, until — almost inevitably — they declare their love and seek each other in real life as well as on paper.
In parallel to this piece of the story is the correspondence of Margaret, Elspeth’s 20-ish daughter, taking place in 1940 and relating to her fiance Paul the strange circumstances of her mother’s disappearance during an air raid on Edinburgh and her discovery that her mother has kept a hidden cache of mysterious letters for over twenty years.
From Margaret’s side of the story, we learn that Elspeth has raised Margaret on her own and has never shared any information with Margaret about her father — so while we’re reading the love letters of Elspeth and David and seeing how their commitment and passion for one another grows, we’re also aware that something must have happened to separate them. The suspense in Letters From Skye comes from this contrast, knowing that these two were madly in love in the 1910s, yet knowing also that in 1940, David has not been a part of Elspeth’s life for as long as Margaret can remember.
In Letters From Skye, the romance is heightened by the urgency of war, and indeed Elspeth has warned Margaret not to rush into a wartime engagement, when sentiments are heightened and no one takes the time to think things through. Clearly, she’s speaking from experience, but are her assumptions about what took place in her own past correct?
There’s much to love in Letters From Skye. Jessica Brockmole succeeds exceedingly well at painting pictures of the various times and places in the novel through the characters’ letters. We get from Elspeth a great sense of what her isolated life on Skye is like, with her views of the sea and hills, the lonely winters and hard rains, the dependence on family and the judgments of the neighboring townsfolk. From David, we get a grand view of privileged American youth in its heyday, playing pranks on campus, itching to get to the glory of the battlefield without any true conception of what horrors really await in the trenches. From Margaret, we get the feeling of incredulity as German bombs fall on the homes and streets of Edinburgh and London, as well as the privations of a country living on rations and sending their children off to the relative safety of the countryside.
While Letters From Skye is primarily a love story, it also does a very effective job of conveying the experience of life in wartime, both from the perspective of the women on the homefront and through the eyes of men on the front lines. Our culture often romanticizes these wars, but Letters From Skye makes abundantly clear that while love may flourish in the pressure-cooker of war, there’s nothing romantic about war itself.
The many threads of the storyline come together nicely by the end, and we learn that there is much more to understand about the past than any of the characters had realized. Misunderstandings and the tragedies of war conspire to separate lovers, and it takes the diligent digging of Elspeth’s daughter until all the various players understand what happened and why. While some of the answers ultimately may seem a bit familiar or predictable, it works nonetheless.
Telling the story through the medium of letters is very effective here, as we readers aren’t simply reading about two people and their growing connection — we’re a part of it. As we read their letters, it’s like a peek into David and Elspeth’s inner lives, and we are privy to their most intimate thoughts and feelings. We absolutely want them together, and it’s heartbreaking for the reader to see the obstacles that separate them, seemingly forever. I felt very invested in David and Elspeth by the end of the book, and while I’ve described the events of the ending as a bit predictable, that in no way detracts from impact that the resolution had on me. I simply couldn’t rest (it was just about midnight when I finished this book) until I found out what happened and why — and what the characters could expect next in their lives.
It was worth staying up for, believe me. I enjoyed Letters From Skye, felt a great connection to the characters, and truly cared about their fates. I’d say that qualifies as a success! Letters From Skye is author Jessica Brockmole’s first novel. I hope we’ll hear much more from her in years to come.
Title: Letters from Skye
Author: Jessica Brockmole
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Library book