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Book Review: “Dear Mr. Knightley,” by Katherine Reay

08 May

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Genre: Inspirational fiction; contemporary; romance

Plot Summary: Samantha Moore grew up in the foster care system and always had difficulty relating to people.  It was just easier to escape into her books, preferably Austen or Bronte or mysteries.  When she gets an opportunity by an anonymous donor to go to a journalism grad school program, she decides to accept the offer.  There’s one catch: she must write letters to “Mr. Knightley” who funds the charitable foundation making her education possible.  Through her letters, she details the everyday goings-on of her life from making friends, her trials at school, and the guys she likes.  She begins to understand herself more and comes to embrace herself and others.  But life begins to become even more complicated for her when her favorite mystery writer enters her life.

My Book Review:  If you’ve taken a look at my “Favorite Books and Authors” page, you’ll soon see that the classic novel Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster is one of my all-time favorites.  There are plenty of spin-offs, sequels, parodies, and spoofs of Jane Austen’s works, everything from Captain Wentworth’s Diary to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  But I’ve never come across a contemporary retelling of Daddy Long Legs, until now.  And it’s under the Inspirational genre to boot!

How I imagine Sam.

How I imagine Sam.

The entire book is written entirely in first-person narrative, since they are the letters of Sam to Mr. Knightley.  The only time the narrative does switch is toward the end, but it does not feel jarring to the reader and it felt appropriate to the story.  I do sort of feel it was unrealistic the way introverted Sam bars the intimate details of her souls so completely but then so quickly to a total stranger whom she’d never met.  Granted, this was supposed to make it easier for her to communicate, but it would feel dangerous in real life.

When I first checked this book out of the library, the librarian paused and said, “I read this book… The ending was different.  Good, just different.”  Going on that, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Should I expect it to end like the original Webster book?  Or does it end differently?  Would I like it if it was completely similar, or would I hate it for copying?  If you’ve ever read Daddy Long Legs, you know how that book ends and most probably you guessed the ending before you got there.  How would the plot of Dear Mr. Knightley match in comparison, and would it be too predictable?

Well, I need not have worried.  DMK was not a copycat of my fave, and the contemporary setting of Chicago rendered an entirely different feel.  Reay’s writing style is not Jean Webster’s, and I’m glad of it.  It kept the story fresh and different.  Although there are similar parallels throughout the book (appendix surgery, new clothes, visiting wealthy friends, etc.), in no way did it become predictable.  In fact, I was on pins and needles worrying how the end would come out!

Even though the details of my life are quite different than Sam’s, I felt I could identify with her feelings in some way.  This is partly why I like DLL so much.  DMK is not the cutsy classic that DLL is.  I love DLL for the original voice of the heroine, Jerusha Abbot.  DMK lacks this, but the narrative feels authentic nonetheless.  It is more gritty, more realistic.  The similar story plot that runs throughout both books is tricky to translate to today’s world, but I thought the author did an excellent job.  By the end of the novel Sam is transforming into a healing, mature adult with good friends around her who care about her and whom she cares for as well.  Sam has to face some tough issues from her past before she can really be in the present and move forward with life.  I think this story needed that.  I also liked that the ages of the hero and heroine are evened out a bit.  Sam is an older heroine than Jerusha, and is attending grad school.

I’m sad to see so many terrible 1-star book reviews of this from people who get hung up on little details.  Sam does start out with things she needs to work on in her life, but she eventually learns and grows as a person.  She is naïve about certain things because she has lived in a self-protective bubble in order to survive for so long, but I found this believable.  She doesn’t have parents or close friends at the beginning to help her walk through some of the issues she has to face, and so she flounders her way alone.  She receives several jolts from the realities of life, but learns things along the way.

Sometimes it’s obvious that you’re reading a book by a first time author.  This was not the case with Katherine Reay’s debut novel.  I simply loved reading it!  I couldn’t put it down, especially toward the end and stayed up until midnight finishing it.  It was just one of those books that you mourn finishing.

How I imagine Alex. (played by Chris Pine)

How I imagine Alex.

However, after thinking it over since finishing it, there are some other thoughts I have on the story.  SPOILER ALERT: Alex is not your typical hero in a typical Christian fiction novel.  In fact, I’m not sure I could really call him a hero.  I liked this on one hand because he isn’t perfect.  On the other, he treats Sam in a terrible manner.  Is he really any better than Josh?  Josh wasn’t a good guy, but he did make it clear what he wanted of Sam.  Alex ‘hangs out’ with Sam, often texting to see if she will meet him at such and such a place at such and such a time, and she jumps like Johnny-on-the-spot to be there.  But she’s always left wondering as to whether it’s just hanging out or something more.  Is it a date, is it not a date?  She tells all this in her letters, but Alex still never makes things clear.  Until one night he springs a proposal on her, Darcy-fashion.  I would say Sam has a right to be angry!  Sam has bared her soul unknowingly all along, but Alex was never clear about himself.  Of course when Alex comes clean in the end, he admits that Mr. Knightley behaved wrongly and is sorry.  He says he knows it will take time to earn her trust of him back, but yet the next moment he’s asking to kiss her.  I don’t think Alex is as mature as Sam has grown to become throughout the novel.

I believe that Katherine Reay did a wonderful job of addressing the issues of one of my favorite classics head on in the end of this story.  It was a delicate thing to tackle.  It’s such a romantic love story that shouldn’t be shot down and ruined because of it’s flaws, but the problematic areas shouldn’t be glossed over either.  In this way, I appreciated the ending better than the one in DLL, where everything is gladly accepted with a bow on it.  END OF SPOILER.

I did feel a bit disappointed with the spiritual aspect of the story.  Some readers may be glad to know that this is not one that will come off feeling preachy.  There is some little mention of God, as Sam notices that He is an important part of the Muris’ lives.  She starts to want that for herself, but is not sure she can have it.  But that’s where that story line ends.  I suppose not everything needs to end up in a neat and tidy, but by this point the reader has come to care about Sam and what happens to her.  Mrs. Muir advises Sam to pray even if she doesn’t believe.  That God has things in His hands.  But it’s unclear how Sam can come to be a child of God.  I guess I felt that the lines were blurred when it came to Sam’s salvation.  However, this wasn’t a major quibble for me in liking/disliking the book.

bfc0e7a8db3f51c6330113095f03e3e8One thing I loved was Sam’s happy adoption by Mr. and Mrs. Muir.  Even though Sam was a grown adult, she still had the need for loving parents who made her feel supported, secure, and safe.  For some reason that tugged at my heart and made me feel like I belonged, too.  I loved the spot at the end where Mr. Muir has a daddy-to-daughter talk with Sam.

I found some good quotes I want to copy before I return it back to the library, and this is definitely a book I want to look out for at book sales to add to my own collection.  Should you read DLL or DMK first?  I don’t think it really matters.  If you read DLL first, you may have somewhat of a feeling of what will happen in DMK.  But as I said, it’s not predictable.  If you read DMK first, you will know how DLL ends, but DLL is an easy one to guess the ending on anyway.  I would probably suggest reading the classic one first, just because it’s fun to find the similar details hidden like Easter eggs throughout the contemporary version.  It’s really up to you.  But I would definitely recommend this to any lover of the original, either way!  Love all the references to modern pop culture (like Sherlock, film versions of P&P, etc.).  Oh, and the reference to Unbroken!

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Posted by on May 8, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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