Sunday, 5 April 2015

#CBR7 Book 34: "Dear Mr. Knightley" by Katherine Reay

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I got this from NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review. 

Samantha Moore has spent most of her life in foster care. Having tried to hold down a job on her own, she reluctantly accepts a scholarship offered by an anonymous benefactor, to Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The scholarship will only be available as long as she completes her degree, and writes about her progress to the foundation, care of the CEO, who hides behind the name Mr. Knightley. Samantha has always had trouble relating to people in the real world, hiding away in classical literature, where she finds solace. She has trouble making connections with others, since she speaks more in literary quotations than actual words, afraid to really be herself or let anyone close to the real her.

Because George Knightley is such an admired hero of Sam's, she accepts the stipulation, and begins to write regularly. Mr. Knightley never responds, but Sam knows her missives are beign read, as very occasionally, she receives a note from the CEO's assistant, responding if it is required. To begin with, Sam finds journalism extremely difficult, wanting instead to focus on a career in creative writing. Because of her difficulties in opening up and properly communicating with other people, her journalistic work is stilted and impersonal. As well as in her many books, Sam finds escape through running. On the running track, she slowly starts bonding with Kyle, one of the other foster kids, but as they are both wounded and slow to trust others, their friendship is difficult to really build.

As she struggles to discover who she really is and overcome her academic challenges, Sam gradually manages to emerge from behind her affected literary personas and make genuine connections. She makes a couple of female friends at college and through a series of coincidences befriends her favourite author, the crime writer Alex Powell. She gets a boyfriend for the first time, and her letters to Mr. Knightley become more like a personal journal than reports on her academic progress. Will she ever find out the real identity of her mysterious benefactor, and how will she react when she does?

I get a fair amount of books through NetGalley, mainly because I can't stop myself from requesting everything that looks even vaguely interesting to me. Sadly, I am really not as good about reviewing the books I am granted ARCs or review copies of, frequently forgetting about them unless they're by an author I especially love (and even then there are so many other shiny books out there to distract me). This is one of those books I forgot about completely and only remembered again when I was looking for epistolary novels for my Eclectic Reader challenge. The fact that it also fit into my key word challenge for March was just a bonus.

While I can see on Goodreads that quite a lot of people (at least of the reviews I browsed) found this book disappointing, and a pale copy of the children's book that it's inspired by, Daddy Long-Legs, I found it very sweet and it reminded me a lot of another book I really like, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It also features a heroine with a long history in the foster care system, who is wounded and needs to learn to find her place in the world. I can absolutely understand why readers may find Sam annoying. I'm fairly sure she's supposed to be. The entire premise of this book is that she is so guarded and distrustful that she's unable to make any real connections, seeking refuge in books and hiding all her true feelings and ineptly channelling fictional characters when forced to talk to others. She's a complete train wreck, but there are good reasons for that. While the book starts when she is 23, this book is clearly a coming of age narrative, and Sam needs to grow up and learn to face reality, both the painful and the joyful parts.

As far as I can tell, the epistolary aspect of the book, where she has to write letters to the mysterious Mr. Knightley is to make it as close to the premise of Daddy Long-Legs as possible. I'm sure I'm not the only reader of the book who started suspecting the true identity of her benefactor fairly early on, because really, I'm not even sure if it's supposed to come as a surprise to anyone who's read more than a couple of books in their life. There are only so many people it could be. It didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book, although I think said person could have come clean sooner instead of continuing to deceive Sam. It still didn't ruin my suspension of disbelief.

Reading and enjoying this book has also made me decide to check out the book that it's based on, and that so many Goodreaders are enthusing about. I'm very glad I re-discovered this book in my NetGalley pile, and will happily seek out other books by this author in future.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

1 comment:

  1. +JMJ+

    There are lots of Jane Austen retellings, but this is the first time I've read of a Jean Webster retelling! (With a title like that, though, it still sounds like a modern version of an Austen novel, aye? LOL!)

    A bunch of people who read Daddy-Long-Legs these days seem to have issues with its romance, so I'd be interested to learn how Katherine Reay deals with that here. Thanks for the review!