The cover and title of Dear Mr. Knightley almost makes you think it will be a cute modern takeoff of Jane Austen’s Emma. But it’s far from that, and, oh my, so rich on so many levels.
Samantha Moore (known as Sam) has spent most of her life in the foster care system. Because of her past and being so often moved about, she finds it hard to relate to people: to protect herself from being hurt she hides her true self. She confesses, “I let go of people and relationships to protect myself, and then I detached so completely that I lost the ability to relate.” At one foster care home she discovered classic books. She became fast friends with Jane Eyre and loved the “safe, ordered, and confined” world of Jane Austen. Classic books became her refuge, and in many cases she responds to people by quoting them, thus hiding her real self.
When presented with the opportunity to receive a grant to go to graduate school, she decides to take it. One unusual stipulation is that the grantor wants to receive “personal progress letters” from her on a regular basis. To preserve his anonymity and give her more freedom to express herself, he goes by the pseudonym George Knightley. Sam accepts the conditions and finds school much harder than she thought and trying to open up and relate to people even harder. He letters to Mr. Knightley become “one-sided soul purgings,” made possible because of the anonymity and because she is sure they will never actually meet.
Much of the book unfolds her growth as a person and in her relationships, including one with a young hostile 14 year old who comes to the group home where she lives and with a couple of new friends at school. When she (literally) runs into her favorite contemporary author, who is speaking at a class in her school, she introduces herself and is invited to coffee, and so starts a tentative friendship with him. But just when she is learning to trust, will a betrayal set her back?
I don’t want to say much more about the plot than that, but I loved watching Sam’s growth. A quick glance at some reviews at Amazon and Goodreads showed that some readers thought she was “a jerk” and didn’t like her. But that’s the whole point: she comes across that way (not in her letters, but to her potential friends) in the “I’m going to drive you away before you drive me away” stance that many people who have been deeply wounded take to protect themselves. Watching the ups and downs of her beginning to realize how she’s been coming across, open up, take risks, learn to trust was full of pathos. Similarly, her naivete, which some criticized, was, I thought, quite understandable since she hadn’t been in any kind of a setting where people tried to teach her about life, the world, and relationships until she came to Grace House, a group home, as a teenager. She eventually learns that “self-protection keeps you from love.”
I also loved the multitude of classic book references and quotes, not only from Austen and Bronte, but also Dickens, Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo), L. M. Montgomery, and C. S. Lewis. I especially liked a passage where Sam reads about Eustace becoming a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and realizes her own dragonish tendencies and her need to be delivered from them. Sam (and Reay) loves many of the same books I do. We became friends when she wrote that “George Knightly is a good and honorable man – even better than Fitzwilliam Darcy, and few women put anyone above Mr. Darcy. Yes, Darcy’s got the tempestuous masculinity and brooding looks, but Knightley is a kinder, softer man with no pretense or dissimulation. Yes, he’s a gentleman. And I can write with candor to a silent gentleman, and I can believe that he will not violate this trust.” Yes! I’ve always liked Knightley better than Darcy.
I appreciated the way the faith element was brought in very naturally. Sam isn’t open to it at first because she thinks “He doesn’t pay attention to me. But…I want to badly to believe that God cares, that all of this matters to Him, that all this pain has a purpose and that none of it tarnishes me forever.” After her encounter with a couple who show her Christ’s love, who “drop hints and hope like bread crumbs for me to follow,” she writes, “How can I not believe that there is a God who exists and loves, when the people before me are infused with that love and pour it out daily? I still can’t grasp that it’s for me, but what if it is?”
I’m normally not a fan of epistolary novels, because not many people really write letters at all these days, much less letters full of plot points and dialogue, but I could easily set that aside and just get into the story and its telling in this way. Even though I think such letters are still probably unrealistic, the style fit this story well. This is the first novel I have been this wrapped up in in a long time, eagerly looking for ways to get in more reading throughout the day (the Kindle app on the phone is nice for that: it’s a little harder to read on a small screen but handy if you find yourself with a few minutes to spare here and there).
I had gotten this book when it was either free or very inexpensive for the Kindle app, and then had forgotten about it. I’m thankful the Austen in August reading challenge reminded me it was there. Katherine Reay is a favorite new author. This is her first novel, and I eagerly await more.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)