The Love Letter

by Cathleen Schine
Houghton Mifflin, 257 pp., $19.95

Where would love be without the love letter? The messenger, the vessel of love, it is also, in Cathleen Schine’s charming fourth novel, its conjurer. It works its magic upon Helen MacFarquhar, a divorced mother of one in her early forties, who runs a bookstore in a well-heeled seaside town in Connecticut called Pequot. Bathed in history, Pequot is a place of quaint shops and sprawling old houses, in which Helen’s pink-fronted bookstore strikes the perfect note of cultivation and slight nonconformity. Perfect notes are Helen’s forte: her life is thoroughly ordered and agreeable, not by chance but by the force of will: “Those things Helen could control…she did control. What she could not control, she regarded as insubstantial or as inevitable. Most of her feelings she deemed insubstantial and she sent them packing with barely a nod of recognition.”

One morning, however, an anonymous love letter appears mysteriously in Helen’s mail, and proves more difficult to dismiss than her feelings. Addressed to “Goat,” signed by “Ram,” it arrives with no indication of its provenance: Helen does not know who has written it, or whether it has reached her by design or accident. The letter itself provides no clues. Helen marvels that the passion it expresses could be anyone’s: “I know I’m in love when I see you, I know when I long to see you…. I’m on fire. Is that too banal for you? It’s not, you know. You’ll see. It’s what happens. It’s what matters. I’m on fire…. You are all wrong for me, I know it, but I no longer care for my thoughts unless they’re thoughts of you.”

The sentiments the letter conveys may be generic, but such is their power that Helen is prompted to consider everyone around her as their possible author, from her friend George, a happily married psychiatrist, to her sensible colleague Lucy, to a summer employee, the son of friends of Helen’s, a twenty-year-old college student named Johnny Howell. None is a remotely plausible candidate, but no matter: put in mind of love, Helen finds herself drawn to, and, eventually, embroiled in an affair with, Johnny, enamored even of the pimples on his all-but-adolescent brow. Johnny, too, stumbles upon the letter, and the effect upon the pair together is like that of the draught that intoxicates Tristan and Isolde, or even, in its absurdity, like the spell that brings together Titania and Bottom. It is a union, in fact, almost as inappropriate as its passion is unreasonable and doomed. And in being all these things, it contravenes every rule by which Helen has chosen to live.

In another sense, however, the affair suits her, precisely because of its unsuitability. Helen’s sense of the world is almost purely literary, her sense of herself is as a fictional heroine, and she is charmed not just by Johnny but by the literary reverberations of their affair, which elicits in her references to Rilke, Keats, Elizabeth Bishop, Violet Trefusis, and Vita Sackville-West. Helen’s art, indeed,…

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