1943, in the ruins of Blitzed London
… Stella Thorne and Dan Rosinski meet by chance and fall in love by accident. Theirs is a reluctant, unstoppable affair in which all the odds are stacked against them: she is newly married, and he is an American bomber pilot whose chance of survival is just one in five.
...He promised to love her forever
Seventy years later Dan makes one final attempt to find the girl he has never forgotten, and sends a letter to the house where they shared a brief yet perfect happiness. But Stella has gone, and the letter is opened by Jess, a young girl hiding from problems of her own. And as Jess reads Dan's words, she is captivated by the story of a love affair that burned so bright and dimmed too soon. Can she help Dan find Stella before it is too late?
Now forever is finally running out.
The Curtis Brown book group now offers two choices per month. So when they tweeted a picture of their choices for March, I had my fingers crossed I would receive Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey as I had heard such great things about it. When I opened the envelope and discovered this quite simply brilliant book inside to say I was excited would be a huge understatement. It is a long book at over 500 pages but I loved every minute of it and just wanted it to go on and on. I literally could not put it down and I read it in a day. It’s been a while since a book kept me up reading late into the night but this book had me in the palm of it's hand and wouldn't relinquish that hold until I reached the last page. Literally everything was put aside and I had to keep reading until I discovered the fate Stella, Dan and co. I don't think I could have spent a night not knowing the outcome for this brave, courageous couple. For a debut novel Letters to the Lost is an astonishing achievement that deserves huge success and to be honest no matter what I write no words will do this magnificent book justice.
With a beautiful cover that instantly draws you in and a prologue that had me hooked instantly I knew I was in good hands. Within the very first paragraph there was a quote I wanted to write down and savour and this continued throughout with such beautiful, thought provoking writing. Overall the writing is just exquisite, I wanted to reread sentences again and again to absorb, enjoy and ponder each word. This is not like me at all as I read quite fast but this book made me stop and just relish such phenomenal writing that only enhanced what is a spellbinding story. All the ingredients I love in a good read are here – historical, time slip, romance, mystery etc but it's how the author uses these ingredients and brings them all together is what makes for such a remarkable read that I really can't say enough good things about. In fact I think it would make a great tv series as I had everything pictured so vividly in my head. Sitting down on a Sunday night to watch the latest episode of Letters to the Lost sounds pretty good to me.
Slipping in time between 2011 and the early 1940's we meet two very different women born years apart but both struggling with various issues in their lives. They both want happiness and to feel completed but things conspire against them and they must use all the strength and courage they possess to weather the storm and achieve what they so badly want. In 2011, Jess is escaping from a tyrant, someone who promised her the moon and stars but failed to deliver. She is running away from him with the smallest amount of money in her pocket and only the clothes she has on her back. Late at night she stumbles across Greenfields Lane and an abandoned house. She breaks in and takes shelter in a house that time seems to have forgotten. While she rests and recuperates after her trauma she discovers a recently delivered letter from a Dan Rosinski to a Stella Thorne. He is looking to reunite with her, he is now 90 and still carries a deep rooted flame for a woman who stole his heart so many years ago. Jess is a woman who is down in herself and her increasingly desperate situation, having nothing and forced to raid cupboards which contain food left there for many years. Enter Will Holt a probate officer who has many troubles of his own, he is trying find any relatives of the owner of the cottage - a Nancy Prize. But if Nancy Prize owns the cottage then who is Stella Thorne? Together Will and Jess do their best to reunite war time lovers as they read through a stash of discovered letters of a love that was real, deep and meaningful, a love that should have transcended any obstacles in its path.
Step back to the early 1940's and Stella has just married Rev. Charles Thorne but is she settling for second best in life? As Charles' former housekeeper has she mistaken love for comfort and ease? It soon becomes apparent neither Stella nor Charles are happy and the reasons for this become clear as we read on. Stella's friend Nancy urges her to go out for a night and break free of the demands of a parish and a husband who is not all he is cracked up to be. When out dancing she meets Dan Rosinski an officer in the air force. An instant and deep attraction sparks between the pair. Yes an attraction that is forbidden and goes against everything Stella has believed in but when love comes calling and your heart is telling you go for it, what can you do? Stella is a woman who wants to always do the right thing especially as she is married to a vicar. But she is also a real woman who needs love and comfort and that is not what Charles is giving her. Dan provides a release for Stella to explore her inner woman and break free from the confines of a bitter, loveless marriage. Their love for each other radiates off the pages, yes initially you feel Stella's uncertainty and reluctance but you also cheer as she gives into her feelings and experiences love the way every woman should have in their life at one time or another. Sometimes we condemn people who have affairs or look on them in an unfavourable way but in this case Stella married very young, is not happy and settled for second best. So I can see why she was turned by Dan and I wanted the best for the pair of them.
The story effortlessly slips between the past and present and I felt every bit of the passion, need, desire and love that the characters are going through. All the background characters each bring their own unique element to the story. Some of the ladies of the parish provided many humorous moments but they were also there to support Stella when she goes through plenty of rough patches. So much happens in this story, there is a lot to take in but it is all necessary and only adds to the multi faceted layers and as the reader peels back these layers both in the past and the present we come to a deeper understanding of how love can transcend all obstacles that life can place in its path. Just when I thought I had everything worked out the author threw in another twist or two that had me gripped and that's what made this so enjoyable. To hold my attention over 500 pages and for it to never waver and to read this book so quick is a testament to what a fantastic, emotive, heartbreaking enduring novel that Iona has written.
I've read a lot of time slip historical fiction novels featuring romance during World War Two. But Letters to the Lost is different. It doesn't just scratch the surface but delves deeper exploring the real problems and anguish Stella is experiencing. This is a book of real substance and don't let anyone tell you it is chick lit. It is women's historical fiction of the highest calibre. Evidently the author put plenty of hours into her research as you feel you are really there during the time of the early 1940's. The hardship women endured as their loved ones fought far away, the daily struggles to try and provide decent meals whilst on rationing and just the general day to day of making do for the greater good of others. I liked how we weren't overloaded with detail into the ins and outs of the war. Dan describes missions he undertakes flying across the channel and you feel you are there with him and his men as they attack the enemy. In a book I had read recently there was way too much technical detail into the air force which put me off the book. Not so in this case, this book is focused more on the love and passion aspect due to a chance encounter and the romance was developed extremely well the more the book progressed. I was rooting for Stella and Dan to get the happiness they deserved in spite of so many obstacles thrown in their path.
You read a book and think oh this is good it could be my contender for book of the year even though it's only April but in all sincerity Letters to the Lost will take some beating for this title for me. I have read several books since this one some of which have had rave reviews but they haven't lived up to my expectation and I think this is because Stella, Dan, Jess and Will and their fascinating story still linger with me and the characters don't want to let go. Iona Grey I hope you are hard at work on book number two because this reader is buzzing from a superb début and I want more, more, more.