Saturday, January 18, 2014
'Dear Mr Knightley' by Katherine Reay
Dear Mr. Knightley is a contemporary epistolary novel with a delightful dash of Jane Austen.
Samantha Moore survived years of darkness in the foster care system by hiding behind her favorite characters in literature, even adopting their very words. Her fictional friends give her an identity, albeit a borrowed one. But most importantly, they protect her from revealing her true self and encountering more pain.
After college, Samantha receives an extraordinary opportunity. The anonymous “Mr. Knightley” offers her a full scholarship to earn her graduate degree at the prestigious Medill School of Journalism. The sole condition is that Sam write to Mr. Knightley regularly to keep him apprised of her progress.
As Sam’s true identity begins to reveal itself through her letters, her heart begins to soften to those around her—a damaged teenager and fellow inhabitant of Grace House, her classmates at Medill, and, most powerfully, successful novelist Alex Powell. But just as Sam finally begins to trust, she learns that Alex has secrets of his own—secrets that, for better or for worse, make it impossible for Sam to hide behind either her characters or her letters.
This is one of those epistolary novels which is written almost entirely in letters.
Orphan and former street kid, Samantha Moore has had a history of getting shuffled around from one foster home to the next. She gets an offer to attend a journalism course, all expenses paid. The one condition is that she has to write letters of progress to her anonymous benefactor, who calls himself Mr Knightley.
I was expecting a light read, but there's a good depth to this story. I understand why some readers may find Sam annoying. She has a tendency to automatically compare herself to heroes and heroines of the great English classics, but I think when we understand that this is a defense mechanism, it's far easier to like her. Besides, she knows how it comes across. Rather than having delusions of grandeur, it's a natural reflex to hide her vulnerability.
She's able to have a laugh at herself too. I love it when she admitted that after bingeing on Jane Austen mimics and knock-offs for months, 'I ended up with a stilted language pattern that took a month to purge.'
For somebody who was told that she insulates herself and doesn't always notice what may be obvious to others, the girl often picks up subtleties that may escape other people. This perceptiveness helps to bring other characters to life too, such as Kyle, the 14-year-old tough boy, Ashley, the rich, pretty girl, and Alex, the successful author.
At first I thought the letters way over-the-top in their descriptiveness and what she chose to reveal. I changed my mind. If somebody wants to call himself 'Mr Knightley' and request correspondence in that cloak-and-dagger way, he's asking for what he gets. Clearly, he did Sam a wonderful favour, giving her an outlet to explore who she is, and find the courage to declare it.
I've read Jean Webster's 'Daddy Long Legs', the book this was obviously based on. (I hope it's OK to say that in a review. I think anybody who has read both would quickly make the connection.) That made the plot predictable but still fun. For readers who haven't read the other book, the twists may astound them. A 21st century version turned out to be a great idea.
I received a copy from NetGalley and Thomas Nelson in return for an honest review.
Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel available from Amazon