FLW“Whatever happened to the love letter? Has the written word lost its charm in our digitally obsessed, speed-dating age?”

To answer these, over forty celebrated writers were asked to explore the potency and power of this classic, yet neglected genre: the love letter. And the result is this unique collection of innovative pieces, edited by Joshua Knelman & Rosalind Porter, that reminds us of how enticing words can be, while at the same time giving a glimpse of what love looks like in the 21st century.

I love books that are written in the epistolary form, fiction or otherwise, and when  you have such big names as Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Audrey Niffenegger, Neil Gaiman, Jan Morris, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lionel Shriver featured together in one volume, I am most definitely sold.

And so, it was with great expectations that I had dived into the book, fully expecting myself to be wooed by the words of people in love. I had expected to be caught up by the passions captured on paper and to experience a fair share of stirrings in the heart. But sadly, it somehow fell short of all my lofty expectations.

That, however, is not to say that I did not enjoy the book, nor that the writings were found to be inferior in any way. In fact, there was quite a generous display of creativity and imagination at work in some of the pieces here. Some were rather bold and edgy, others were laced with darker shades of humour. Maybe I found some of them too dark and edgy for my liking. Few and far were the more conventional ones that offered the kind of  warmth and ‘feel good’ vibes that good old fashioned love letters were supposed to evoke, I thought.

My two favourite pieces were the ones by Jeanette Winterson and Audrey Niffenegger. And interestingly, they also happened to be the first and last letters I had picked to read at random.

Winterson’s letter took the form of narration through a series of  photographs and postcards, reminding her beloved of their happier times together during their trip to Venice. This was a beautifully evocative piece that managed to capture a strong sense of place and time for the reader. On a more personal note, it had also struck a chord with me as I was reminded of the times when I had been found writing my ‘love letters’ on the back of postcards while being abroad. I have always felt that writing postcards back ‘home’ to that someone special, is one of the most romantic things that one can do. After all, home is where the heart is, isn’t it?

Here is an excerpt from one of the Winterson’s postcards of George Bush with an arrow through his head.

Outside, the world I cannot control is writing a dark fairy tale of white superman heroes and dusky-faced fanatics, comic book grotesques. This is the War on Terror, the battle for all that is fine and good, except that each believes in its own fine and good and will destroy everything else, in its name.
[….] And so, while they tell me that the small and the particular does not matter, and that this is the world stage we are playing on, I want to know where I can call home, if not with you?
I’m doing my best with the big questions, but I have a small one too:
‘Do you love me?’

Audrey Niffenegger’s piece was my other favourite in this collection. The New Orleans flooding in 2005 was the backdrop for this letter, written by a worried and helpless partner who has had no news and no means of communication with her partner for days. Even the letter is just a channel for venting out the frustration and anxiety that the writer is going through, as there is no way for it to be sent out anyway, under the circumstances. But it is within the pages of this unsent letter, that I found one of the most poignant, heartfelt lines.

Do you know how to swim, Sylvie? I never asked you. It’s amazing to me how much I don’t know. After two years you’d think we’d know everything there is about each other. But I guess you never can tell what will be important. Why would it matter if you could swim? We only talk about what we’re reading. We eat and sleep and take baths and put on clothes and take them off again…. [….] and go to classes and all around us the air fills up with words about books.
If New Orleans was flooded with words I would not be afraid for you, Sylvie. I know you can swim in words. But water…. can you swim in water, Sylvie?

There were definitely more than a few pieces that I did like in this collection. It’s just that there were fewer hits than the misses, I guess.

At least, I did have a good start and a good end to what I’d say, was a rather interesting reading experience.

6 thoughts on “Four Letter Word

  1. Perhaps we have to be part of the relationship to be really moved by a love letter. The best are full of tiny moments that would have no meaning to the rest of the world and I think if I were to read letters like that I would feel like something of a voyeur. I do love reading other people’s letters, she admits shamefacedly, but I think I might give this collection a miss.


    1. You’ve got a point there, I guess. Actually, it’s the ones that are full of tiny moments and nuances that I like reading most. The ones that I couldn’t appreciate were those that were rather loud, crude and explicit. I found the vulgarity of the language distasteful. That said, I do still think the collection is worth picking through, for the good bits. 🙂


  2. I had just recently read about this book, and even though I also love the epistolary form, I think I might just give it a miss also. When reading love letters, I’m looking more for a warm, romantic feeling rather than dark humor or edginess. Thank you for sharing your impressions–I think we are alike enough that your impressions would be like mine.


    1. Gee, seems like I am doing the book a kinda disservice here, hahaha. But thanks, for thinking we are alike enough to probably share the same impressions. But if you do get a chance to flip through the book, I would still say, do. You really might find something in there that may click with you. Not all the objects of affection in those letters were people, by the way. And not all the relationships were between lovers. I quite like the ones that were between the child and parent.


  3. What an odd idea for a collection. I love letter collections in general but this sounds a little too artificial for me. Except the Winterson, I read all her books in my teens and like the sound of her postcards… 🙂


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