Rosy Thornton's More Than Love Letters isn't exactly a typical romance, either in form or in content, though it does have "a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" (Romance Writers of America's definition of a romance novel). Rosy herself describes it as "romantic comedy" but as the reviewer at Trashionista observed, it "manages to balance serious issues with being the funniest book I’ve read for a while". The Amazon reviews highlight the ways in which the novel combines comedy and tragedy, multiple perspectives (from characters who span the generations) and
was completely unlike any other 'chick lit' I have ever read, by turns satirical yet warm-hearted, serious and also farcical in the best and original sense of the word. The central story focuses on the unlikely, yet touching, romance between an MP [Member of Parliament] and a young woman called Margaret. The story also tackles issues, great and small, from homelessness and asylum seekers to dog fouling and unfair taxes. (Liz)Over at AAR there's a thread about cultural differences, in which EllenB asked whether "romances accurately reflect the culture they're set in": this is a novel which felt very distinctively and realistically British to me. I also wrote recently about what readers bring to a novel and I was reminded of this when reading the reviews because although Margaret and her political activities seemed relatively normal to me, one reviewer felt that "I loved the heroine, Margaret, from the very beginning and although she might seem slightly bonkers, her passion and enthusiasm make her totally loveable". As a 24-year-old who regularly contacts her MP to raise issues with him she is a little unusual: according to a recent GfK NOP survey, "Only 11 per cent of 16-24 year olds have contacted their MP about an issue that concerns them. By contrast a third of 45-54 year olds (33 per cent) have contacted theirs". Climate change, however, one of the issues raised by Margaret, is an issue which concerns the vast majority of her age-group: "Over two thirds of the adult population (69 %), and three quarters (75 %) of 16-24 year olds think a climate law should be introduced that requires UK carbon dioxide emissions to be cut every year". She also campaigns on some very local issues (e.g. dog fouling in a local park) and some more unusual ones, such as VAT on sanitary products. As the Women's Environmental Network note, "Until comparatively recently sanitary protection was classified as a luxury item and taxed at the full VAT rate of 17.5%. Since January 2001 however, the tax on these products has been cut to a fairer 5%. They cannot be zero-rated due to a European agreement not to extend zero-rating to any products other than those already in place at the end of 1975" (WEN, pdf document). Margaret's view is that "they should be zero-rated" because "the charging of any VAT on sanitary towels and tampons is an unarguable example of sex discrimination" (1).
Of course, the fact that I know these things may be one reason why Margaret didn't seem particularly "bonkers" to me. Then again, as I'm a sandal-wearing, vegetarian Guardian reader, who regularly writes to her MP and knows plenty of people whose commitment to a variety of causes matches Margaret's, that reviewer might consider me just a little bit "bonkers" too. Which brings us back to the issue of reader perceptions and how they can differ from one individual to another. As this is an epistolary novel there is no narrator to shape the reader's perception, and so we must each fill the gaps between the texts in our own way, reaching our own conclusions about both the characters and the events which take place in the novel.
Rosy Thornton, a Bye-Fellow in Law at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, may write that "Lawyers are famous for being unimaginative thinkers. Law is one of those subjects where you dissect things" (EADT24), but this is a novel which sets the reader thinking, and not just because of the various issues raised in the course of the novel, but also because of its form: it's "written as a series of traditional letters and emails - plus the odd extract from the minutes of meetings of WITCH: Women of Ipswich Together Combating Homelessness" (EADT24) which span the period from the 14th of September 2004 to the 21st of December 2005. The various texts (which are, as the title of the novel suggests, "more than love letters") ask the reader to assume the lawyerly role of questioning the texts presented as evidence, in order to draw his or her own conclusions. Characters are also readers, reading and responding to some of the texts included in the novel, though none of them are privy to all of the texts in the way that we are. We can compare the differing linguistic registers in which Margaret writes to her grandmother, her friend Becs, and her local MP. The attention to words and texts is shared by many of the characters, some of whom enjoy wordplay and many of whom make intertextual references to a wide variety of novels and television programmes, including The West Wing, What Katy Did, and Cora's "eclectic mix [...] everything from the Brontës to Mills and Boon. We have lots of the same favourites - like Lord Peter Wimsey, and Frenchman's Creek, and those Margaret Forster family histories" (48). Cora herself suggests that references which might be familiar to people in her age-group will not be understood by those in another: "I didn't want her to hear 'Stand Down Margaret'! We really used to hate that name, didn't we. But she's so young, I don't suppose she thinks of that association" (111), and yet Thornton suggests that perhaps we should not make such assumptions too quickly. Margaret has, in fact, already said of her name that she doesn't like the shortened form
Maggie [...] for me the only image that conjures up is documentary footage on TV from the 1980s, CND demos, or striking miners on picket lines, and that inevitable angry chanting: 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - out, out, out' (80)Contemporary authors can still be inspired by novels written over a century ago (More than Love Letters is loosely based on Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South) and, conversely, the old, represented by Margaret's grandmother, may be in touch with contemporary popular culture:
What's 'The West Wing', by the way? Is it something I should watch, do you think? Would I understand it? I am so grateful that you started me off watching 'Friends'. I used to really look forward to my Friday evenings, and I was so pleased when Rachel decided not to go to Paris in the end. She and Ross make such a lovely couple, don't they? (26)In its form More Than Love Letters reminds me somewhat of the video for JXL's remix of Elvis's A Little Less Conversation. This, like Thornton's novel, is a reworking of an original text/song. The video also includes a frame, so that we become an external viewer, regarding a viewer within the frame who is himself watching various dancers and singers responding in their own ways to Elvis's original song. Thornton places us in the position of the viewer, interpreting others' interpretations. In the JXL remix the dancers and singers, from different social, ethnic and age groups, each have their own responses to the song in a way which is not dissimilar to the manner in which each character in More Than Love Letters has his or her own reactions and interpretations of events. The reader is thus presented with a variety of characters, each the main performer in his or her own drama. In addition the lyrics of the song seem an apt reflection of Margaret's feelings. In general she would like "A little less conversation, a little more action please" from her elected representatives, including, eventually, precisely that sort of "action" implied by Elvis.
The interpretation of texts and reported actions, and the ways in which they can be misleading is in fact a theme of the novel. Richard Slater is an MP in the post-Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson world of New Labour so he discusses with his friend how to maximise his media coverage and spin it to his advantage; images in newspapers can be misinterpreted; journalists may juxtapose quotations to misleading effect. More benign examples of deliberate lack of clarity can be found in the minutes of WITCH meetings, which allow the truth to be read through the lines:
Mrs Robertson from number 27 has complained again about noisy male visitors late at night. Emily and Pat T. have spoken to Lauren once more about telling the boys to keep the noise down, and explained how vital it is for the future of the project that no money should change hands. (6)Margaret's grandmother tells of the slight (and very well-meaning) deception she engages in with her home help:
Kirsty comes at nine o'clock, which is when she starts work, and that's fair enough, she has her own little ones to get up and fed and off to school first. But I feel so idle just sitting in bed until she comes, so sometimes I have a wash and a piece of toast before she arrives, and then hop back into bed when I hear the gate. Then I have to pretend to be hungry when she makes my breakfast later. (I can tell you, love, because I know you'd never say anything.) (25)She also recounts a story from Margaret's past which involved a verbal misunderstanding:
The very first day you started nursery school, I remember I went with Mum to meet you at three o'clock, and the first thing you said when you saw us was, 'I've got a new friend and she's called Horatio.' It took us three weeks to work out what her name really was - though your mum said Carnation wasn't much better than Horatio! (24)Misunderstandings and deliberate deceptions (which range from the benevolent white lie to the concealment of sexual abuse) abound and we, as readers, are at times amused and at times challenged by the mixture of truths and falsehoods.
- Thornton, Rosy. More Than Love Letters. 2006. London: Headline, 2007.