On The Letter

Time for some marginal commentary on The Letter, a novel by Richard Paul Evans.

Unlike my posts thus far on the Harry Potter books, which have been, in essence, attempts at literary criticism, I will be sticking mostly to citing passages from this book and commenting upon them - which is what most marginal commentary in fact is.

References to page numbers are from the 1997 hardcover publication by Simon & Schuster.

It was with ardent horror that primitive man first witnessed a solar eclipse - the sun devoured by the predator moon until its light ceased and darkness fell upon the face of the land. ... One such eclipse [now referring generally to periods of crisis and darkness in human history] was the darkness that befell the world that black October of 1929 ... there was scarcely a corner of the globe that did not feel the tremor of that institution's [the NY Stock Exchange] great fall or the bleak chill of its darkness. [Prologue, p. 13]
Not too fond of the excessive use of adjectives. 'Horror' ought to be horrific enough to describe the reaction of 'primitive man' to an eclipse. 'Great' is unnecessary but not an egregious addition. The phrase 'bleak chill, &c.' makes no sense in this context. To what does 'its darkness' refer? It only makes sense if it refers to 'eclipse', but the phrase's placement in the sentence (some of which was omitted) suggests it refers back to either 'the tremor' or 'that institution'.

On the other hand, I did like the phrase, 'the sun devoured by the predator moon until its light ceased'; the rest could go but probably needs to stay as it directly, rather than implicitly, refers to darkness, setting the scene for the rest of the page (and the rest of the prologue).

Finally, on p. 13, Evans writes: 'The bitterness of the era may only be fully known by those who felt its [!] desperation as banks foreclosed, then folded themselves, leaving millions unemployed, homeless, and hopeless.' Why is 'its' there? The era, the Depression, cannot itself be the subject of desperation; meanwhile, while I am led to understand that 'foreclose' may be used as an intransitive verb, it doesn't feel right to me. I feel as though we ought to be told just what it is the banks are foreclosing. But I suppose the object is implied and well-known; still, it doesn't look right.

What I would write if I were writing on the page of this book?
First page in, needs an editor.
Straightaway Evans provides an opportunity for the armchair editor with the first sentence of p. 14, which, ahem, reads:
But among the tales of despair are also stories of quiet heroics. heroism
However, things improve; on p. 15, Evans writes:
I am not a believer in love at first sight. For love, in its truest form, is not the thing of starry-eyed or star-crossed lovers, it is far more organic, requiring nurturing and time to fully bloom, and, as such, seen best not in its callow youth but in its wrinkled maturity.
The claim made in this passage (and in the paragraph that follows) is quite something, and if Evans is not, so far, a polished writer, he is capable of expressing a powerful sentiment competently. But what I would write on the bottom of the page below this would be:
Can Evans sustain this thesis throughout the book?
Skip a bit. In ch. 5, we are introduced to a 'local socialite and flagship of [Salt Lake City's] haute monde' (p. 68), a woman going fat by the name of Victoria Piper. Her motivation in this chapter? To act as panderer, offering up her niece (about whom she says, 'All men want to meet [her]. [p. 69]'), it seems, to the attentions of one of the main characters, David Parkin, whose relationship with his wife, MaryAnne (the other main character) has been steadily deteriorating since the death of their only child, Andrea, twenty years ago, in a fire. In fact (though Mrs. Piper doesn't yet know this), MaryAnne has left the Parkin household, it would seem for good.

But suddenly, at the end of the chapter (p. 70):

LukeDavid bit back his anger and turned to his work, bending over the stacks of carbon invoices that had piled up in his absence. "I am not afraidinterested."
YodaVictoria [Piper] was more amused by his response than dissuaded. She smiled easily as she stood to leave. "Oh, you will be... . You will be." Yoda in da house!

Panderer and Yoda-wannabe both, that Mrs. Piper. Hopefully she's not wrinkled and green, or voiced by Frank Oz.

Next chapter. David receives a letter from his estranged mother. It is just at this moment that he wishes he could speak with her and ask why she abandoned him. At first I would have written, cynically, in the margin (on p. 77): How convenient. But, to be fair to Evans, David's mother left the letter at Andrea's grave back in the first chapter, and MaryAnne got it and left it at the house (to be recovered by the housemaid) shortly thereafter. So, convenient though it might be, I should have to write, on the last page of the chapter (p. 79):

1) Letter left by mother. 2) MaryAnne finds it when visiting her daughter's grave and guesses at identity of writer (David's mother). 3) She leaves it in the care of Catherine the housemaid. 4) David later wishes he could speak to his mother. 5) Catherine, being the sort of person to do such a thing, goes and fetches the letter to show David. 6) David compares the letter to one he received from his mother before the story begins when she abandoned him for a second time, confirming the identity of the writer of the letter left on Andrea's grave. All of these things follow either from necessity or probability, or from the character of the people involved. Yet we have not ascertained whether David's mom is the sort to show up regretfully wishing to trade her years for Andrea's.

I should also write: Letters a primary mechanism of moving the plot. In the prologue, Evans fictitiously refers to the letter from David's mother (p. 14) and says it was of 'great significance' and had set events in motion (those words, but put in different order). In addition to the letter Rose (the name of David's mother) writes, found in the first chapter and its contents revealed just now (in ch. 6), we read (in ch. 6) the letter she left for David when she went to Chicago, fleecing him out of $25,000 and abandoning him a second time (this occurring some years before Andrea's death, which happened in 1913, twenty years before the story is set, that is a lot of money!), and in ch. 4 David reads the letter from MaryAnne in which she tells him she is leaving him (though she still loves him, and he her). More letters, I'm sure, will come.

On p. 86, David meets Mrs. Piper's niece. She turns out to be much nicer than her aunt's pandering would imply. But - her name is given as Dierdre (on p. 87) when she has neither introduced herself nor been introduced by her aunt. We still don't know if David actually knows her name, and there is no good reason why we should know it, either. In fact, we are not given her name in a logical fashion until p. 90, at the end of the chapter, when Aunt Victoria says:
"There you are, Dierdre," she blared. What, we only actually learn her name now?
On the other hand (although, alas, on p. 91, Evans clumsily spells out Victoria's satisfaction at David and Dierdre's mutual attraction), David is obviously smitten with Dierdre, and it came about (so far as we can tell) quite by accident; Dierdre at one point appears to be honestly upset she said something to cause him offense.

On the character Lawrence's exposition of the thesis (referred to above) from the prologue on pp. 107-8, I would write:

Lawrence is blind, old, black, and dying. Was an enlisted man in the Cavalry, fell in love with (a sentiment presumably returned by) the daughter (a woman by the name of Margaret) of a cavalry officer; they didn't marry b/c, as Lawrence puts it, 'Ain't no Negro officers in the U.S. military.' But it is odd that Lawrence should so wisely speak of love since he could not nurture his love of Margaret in the way he puts it. He rather comes across as a seer - which, I presume, is the point of his blindness and fondness for clocks. And he refers mysteriously to a woman named Sophia whom he expects will show up after his death. Isn't there a trope on about this sort of thing? The 'magical Negro'?

Moving on. In the somewhat hackneyed, good king Wenceslas style, David Parkin treats a family drifting through Utah to California to Christmas dinner (pp. 118-26), and lends the father two hundred dollars as seed money to get started. But even I felt a pang when I read:
Catherine's eyes moistened as she watched David hand out Andrea's toys. [p. 124]
It should be noted that Andrea's room had been left untouched since her death; a mausoleum. It is surely a good sign that David is beginning to recover when he is willing to give away his daughter's old toys to the children on Christmas.

On we go. On p. 135, Catherine states her belief that our lives are guided by an unseen force and explains what she means in some detail:

"Perhaps. As I grow older I find that I become more fatalistic. Looking back over my life, I believe that it has been guided by unseen forces. And that I have been showered with clues to direct my path."
"What kind of forces?" [asked David]
"I'm not certain. God. His angels. Maybe just some great universal force of truth. Whatever you call it, there is something that shapes and directs our lives [so says Obi-Wan Catherinobi]. I am certain of it. We can ignore the clues, we all do from time to time, sometimes we don't even see them. But I don't think that we, or our lives, will be complete without them." Perhaps unfair to compare, but I prefer the lighter touch taken by Tolkien regarding this same idea; nowhere do Elrond, Gandalf or anyone else make so direct a statement, but many times guidance of such a kind is implied. However, thinking about Tolkien has mitigated some of my initial dislike for this passage; for Tolkien implied very much a similar concept and elsewhere in The Letter Evans clearly sees a role for virtue and choice; guided though we might be, we are not automatons. And speaking of Tolkien, Evans writes: "And yet, with all my heart, I fear it." [said David] How like Tolkien, that turn of phrase.

Whether I agree with what is propounded in this chapter or not, the test will be whether Evans can see it through.

On we go.

"There is integrity to your belief. I have to believe that pleases God." [said David]
"I don't think so. I think God wants blind obedience." [said Dierdre]
"I find it difficult to accept that God created rational beings and would want them to be marionettes." [David replied; p. 169] There's the answer to that question, despite reference to fatalism. Odd perhaps that David is having this conversation with Dierdre.

On p. 171; David compares the relationship between religion and God to that between a clock and time. In the margins: Interesting analogy.

Pp. 195-6; Dierdre makes her move; she is rebuffed. Unfortunately it comes as no surprise to the reader; despite David's attraction to Dierdre we already know he is too darn good. It robs the scene of any tension or drama; and I daresay robs the book as a whole of much of it, too. David is a typical American protagonist - too good to be interesting.

I owe it to Evans to correct myself; on pp. 224-6 we learn that David is not quite so easily able to shake off Dierdre (although her line, 'there is an inexplicable chemistry between us' is nearly unforgivable prose). We have also learned that David's mother is supposedly dead, although her appearance in the first chapter suggests otherwise - still, dead or alive, she is quite able to haunt the lives of others.

Pp. 235-7; David comes by chance (perhaps) to the Troop Street bridge, from which, it is said, his mother flung herself into the river to her death. In a passage at once elegant and clumsy, David stands on the bridge, dropping a rose (it is no coincidence that the mysterious woman who left the letter on Andrea's at the start of the book left a rose with it) which he has just bought into the river below, thinking about how things have turned out. Evans seems capable of writing well, but not consistently well.

Pp. 277-8. Here it is, the passage which was recommended to me. I will quote it in full.
The sexton pulled the horse's head back, and the horse plodded forward. When David was alone, he slowly approached the stone monument. He glanced at its inscription. Our Little Angel. He knelt down on one knee before it. In a serene voice he said, "I've got to tell you something, honey. I am letting you go. I once thought that to release the pain was a type of betrayal. I now know that the opposite is true - that the greatest gift I can give to you is to free you from the burden of my grief. If life is so precious that I mourned the loss of yours, how wrong to throw away mine. I wonder if the loss of my life has caused you the same pain that the loss of yours caused me." He stopped, glanced up to the angel, then dropped his head again. "I know how much you loved your mother. I promise you that I will not close my heart to her again."
At the use of the adjective 'serene', I would write, 'alas'. Better, I think not to have written such a thing, or else to have used 'peaceful' instead of something was thought absolutely necessary. Somewhere C. S. Lewis writes that it is better when writing to show than to tell. At least here Evans shows us through what David says that he is beginning to come to terms with Andrea's death, rather than tell us via authorial exposition, save the brief reference to the tone of David's voice. Evans has not elsewhere shown such skill (and I have hardly listed all such occasions).

The sentiment is competently if not excellently put; and I believe it is true to experience. Another novel treating of the same theme (vis à vis coping with the death of a loved one), Walk Two Moons, handles that matter more skillfully, while something like the poem Pearl handles religious themes with greater skill (and the role of fate, chance and choice handled better by Tolkien), but at least here in The Letter Evans reaches what may be the climax and does not disappoint.

Speaking of letters and their importance to moving the plot forward, I have forgotten a few. While in Chicago, David discovers a few letters of his mother's, and receives a telegram from owners of the theatre at which his mother last worked before her (apparent?) death, all of which serve to help him come to terms with his abandonment, with Andrea's death, and with his relationship with his wife (who, by the time of this moment in the graveyard, has returned; for how long, we shall see).

More letters! On pp. 286ff., Lawrence's daughter (by Margaret), Sophia, is given 'answers' left to her by her father by David, who had promised Lawrence he would get a certain box for her upon his old friend's death.

P. 290; I wonder whether Evans has read Pearl, for here David tells MaryAnne that as he stood upon the Troop Street bridge from which his mother flung herself, he (figuratively) imagined himself encountering Andrea and having to explain that he had 'thrown away everything that I loved'. Of course the encounter between father and daughter in Pearl is much different than the imagined encounter in The Letter; but it is interesting that David should imagine such an encounter.

Pp. 321-2; Evans describes in some detail David Parkin's last minutes as he dies of pneumonia. It is not gory or anything (he doesn't, for instance, rabbit on about the physical effects of pneumonia); but I don't much care for it. I would simply write, 'why?' Best if he'd just let MaryAnne fall asleep and then describe, as he does, the morning breaking in Salt Lake City and the reaction of MaryAnne and Catherine to the discovery of David's death.

Pp. 325-6; David's funeral. The part that interested me most? Discovering whether the prayer read by the clergyman (an Episcopalian priest) is from the BCP. Of course, it is from whatever edition was used by the American Episcopal Church in the 1930s, so it may differ from the 1962 Canadian BCP, but let's see.

The prayer reads as follows:
"O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered, accept our prayers on behalf of thy servant David and grant him entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of thy saints; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen."
No luck; there is no prayer like this in the BCP in the Order of Service for the Burial of the Dead (BCP 1962, pp. 591-610). There is a prayer like it on p. 599 of the BCP, which says, more or less, the same thing, however.

My marginal commentary? It is appropriate. Although David's character is made plain by the people who come to his burial (every living worker at his company, retired or employed, including blacks) and we have just watched him turn himself around, his story ends, as it were, with a collect, a prayer spoken by the officiant on behalf of the assembly, on behalf of the departed; most significantly, it ends with the doxological statement which concludes every collect, 'through Jesus Christ, &c.' It should be clear by now that Evans does not stint on referring to religious matters, although it is not, of course, at the forefront of the book. Actually, his handling of religious matters is here competent, even graceful; whereas but a few pages leter, in what constitutes an epilogue, he returns to the narrative voice employed in the prologue and expounds on the importance and significance of love (whether it can be related to God or on its own terms if there is no one outside material experience to relate it to). Now, the sentiments he expresses are not necessarily bad, but are rather poorly put, I feel, and his point had been made, and had been better made, during the course of the book: indeed, much of the point of fiction is to bring to life, as it were, concepts and ideas that are often difficult to accept or which cannot help but be ineptly put in other contexts.

Oh, and, I am happy to say that David's mother Rose is alive (pp. 327-30), and not a ghost or some other spiritual being. Evans takes care to enflesh his angels (at one point, David calls Catherine an angel, for instance), so at least he did not leave it implied that she was a ghost.

I do have a few final things to say about the book.

1) While there were a few passages which struck me as well-composed and speaking truthful sentiment, it must be said that on the whole I did not find The Letter interesting. Evans conveyed his point well enough; he didn't botch it, but he didn't make it especially appealing, either.

2) Evans's use of motifs and themes running throughout the book was uneven. Despite the fact that he makes a very good point about the organic nature of love and how it requires nurturing and proper care, &c., in the prologue, and expresses the same through the mouths of one or another character, the theme could have been handled better; that Evans felt he had to use his characters as mouthpieces speaks to what I believe is a lack of faith in his own ability to convey the theme convincingly by other means. Another example: the significance of the carousel (which I have not touched upon) is woven unevenly into the story and should have been made plainer earlier on; by contrast, while the rose as an emblematic device (whose connection to David's mother is blindingly obvious because of her name, Rose) is better handled, better woven into the story.

3) I wonder whether Dierdre (whose last name, Williams, is given when she introduces herself to MaryAnne, David's widow) wasn't added to the story at a later date; her character is neither intrinsic to the plot, nor do the ways in which she advances the plot follow necessarily from her character or actions. Moreover, there is the detail that we are given her name before she is even introduced to David. It is speculation on my part, but her role feels a bit like fantastic wish-fulfillment on the part of the author: an attractive young woman, slightly transgressive, falls for the older, gentlemanly protagonist; he is able to remain faithful to his own wife, but obviously attracted to her, and she remains in love with him, because he is so obviously a 'good guy'.

4) On that note, Evans doesn't seem to me to be very good at characterising women in general. It is no surprise that he got MaryAnne out of the way so that he would not have to try to work out her character; while Catherine does not quite come into her own as a person: she really is an angel. Victoria Piper is a caricature in manner, in appearance, and in dress; she is obviously a satirical take on society ladies, but the satire fails, I think. You'd find better satires in Mark Twain or even L. M. Montgomery. There are some other failed characterisations of women, but some successes; Dierdre's mother appears but briefly, but you get a sense of a woman with a life of her own that the author sadly cannot spare the time to tell us about, and Rose King, David's mother, is an enigmatic figure and even the object of the reader's fascination. Even in her final appearance she does not disappoint, say, by launching into an hysterical apology at the foot of her son's grave, but tells MaryAnne such wisdom as her life has given her and leaves.

5) My final say is that The Letter is a little too easy a read. Evans doesn't quite seem capable of communicating, in a manner appropriate to story, the grand themes of love, grief, recovery of self, fate, God, and choice that he sets out to communicate. That he had to spell them out for us in the prologue and epilogue and, at several points, out of the mouths of his characters, is not good. To be fair, the characters of other, better writers often serve as mouthpieces for their authors, but in those cases either the better author is failing to write well (which sometimes happens), or the message being delivered is 'in character' as it were, for the character, and is much more subtle: you do not feel, for example, that Frodo's statement that 'the Shire was saved, but not for me, sometimes one must give up something so that others may have it' or Dumbledore's 'the next time you face the choice of deciding between what is easy and what is right, remember Cedric Diggory' are intrusive; but they undoubtedly reflect passionately-held views of the author. By contrast, Evans frequently succumbs to the inartistic substitution of his own sentiments for those of his character's, or else includes some authorial comment during the narrative that spoils its effect; the sentiments expressed may well be agreeable, as I have pointed out more than once, but they could have been expressed in a mode more appropriate for the work.

So much, then, for The Letter.

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