‘Sup readers? Welcome to this week’s On The Shelf column, a weekly delve into newly-released literature that’s meant to help you decide which goodies you want on your shelf, and which remain on your ereading device of choice. Since I completely neglected Valentine’s Day in every single way this year (in my defence, it fell on the same day as Taco Tuesday, and I couldn’t really be expected to prioritize a made-up holiday over homemade tacos as big as my head), I chose a romance read this week.
A Thousand Letters by self-published author Staci Hart is this week’s pick. I know what you’re thinking: self-published? Sounds dicey! Let’s clear the air right now: self-published books, just like their mass-produced counterparts, have champions and critics alike. You’re not going to love every book you read, no matter if it’s published by HarperCollins or CreateSpace Independent publishing— for example, Natalia Jaster’s crowd-funded, indie book Trick is one of my favourites. New adult darling Colleen Hoover started out as a self-published author before she landed a print deal, and people (rightly) can’t stop raving about her. Just because a book doesn’t have mainstream backing, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading. While it may be harder to strike gold amongst the hordes of self-published works, don’t knock the entire concept, because more than likely, one of your future favourite authors is using self-publishing to get their name out there.
Now that we have that settled, back to the actual book. A Thousand Letters is meant to echo Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of lit grad Elliot, and her former-boyfriend-current-soldier Wade. The two were each other’s first loves, and almost got engaged when Wade was 18 and ready to leave for the army. Elliot, 17 at the time, asked him to wait for her to graduate high school before they exchanged “I Dos,” (not an unreasonable request), but Wade, heartbroken, refused and they split. Seven years later, Wade returns to New York because his father, Elliot’s mentor, is on death’s door. As both Elliot and Wade struggle to say goodbye, they realize they still carry the brightest of torches for one another— but the chasm of the things left unsaid between them grows deeper by the day, and both struggle to mask their feelings. A Thousand Letters is a story about love and loss, ends and beginnings, first chances utterly ruined and second chances as fragile as a flower bud.
Hart made getting into this book easy with one thing that’s guaranteed to spark my interest: poetry. Hart uses snippets of poems to headline and name her chapters, and frequently includes it in the actual story, which I was utterly smitten with. Unfortunately, that’s the only part of the book I fell in love with.
Teenage Elliot has a horrible home life (when she’s not being ignored by her father and sisters, they’re degrading her) until she meets Wade’s family (she’s best friends with his younger sister, Sophie). It’s love at first sight, and just as importantly, Wade’s father, Rick, a lit professor, encourages Elliot’s dreams of becoming a writer and feeds her passion for poetry. It’s because of Rick that Elliot makes the momentous decision to pursue post-secondary education; she is nurtured and loved as part of Wade’s world, something her own biological family couldn’t be bothered to do. Adult Elliot’s life still sucks, because after she breaks up with Wade, she moves in with her thoroughly detestable sister and raises her children for her. She’s still close with Sophie and still thinks the world of Rick, but everything she never got to tell Wade weighs down on her like a cinder block, and she’s unable to face him. The feeling is mutual, with Wade refusing to come home, on the off chance that he sees her, volunteering for tour after tour until his homecoming is inevitable.
The parts of Hart’s novel featuring Rick and his children and the uncompromising reality of death are poignant and real. But the rest of it (namely, the romance) is less of a delicious slow burn and more of a painful struggle. It is grind-to-a-halt slow, and really, the length shouldn’t allow that amount of sluggishness. The book is short (the Kindle edition marks it at 282 pages) but mostly it involves the leads tripping through a cringe-worthy dance of two baby steps forward and one giant step back. They both are still in love with each other, something made clear from the outset, and the things that get between them are non-factors, shortly defused, only to be replaced by more non-factors. Bruh, make up your minds. Shared history, no communication, and the fact that it’s been seven years and you broke up painfully could definitely be real issues stopping you from giving love another shot. Seeing the object of your affection with someone from the opposite gender (with no context as to who they are, and even when context is given, still overreacting about it) is not.
Another issue I had was Wade himself. I can’t properly express my incredulity without spoilers, so I’d skip this part if I were you.
SPOILERS ABOUND: I couldn’t see how Elliot (by all accounts a genuinely unselfish woman who, unlike her sisters, defied being a product of her circumstances to transcend into something more) could be in love with him. Especially when literally everyone (from her brother-in-law to random colleagues he brings home) seems to be interested in her. I didn’t necessarily like her as a protagonist, but I could at least appreciate the whys and hows of her character. Wade’s described as handsome, and while there is some depth given to him (his reasons for enlisting in the first place, and why he overreacted to Elliot’s initial rejection), what I know of Wade after finishing the book makes me wish he was in therapy, not a relationship. He is obsessive over Elliot with no real cause and possessive over her with no real claim. They both have a crazy amount of chances to be honest with each other, but while Elliot proceeds with caution, Wade lashes out and spoils his moments with anger. Death impacts everyone in different ways, but there’s no excuse for sneaking through a woman’s window, sleeping with her, and immediately afterwards, telling her you can’t give her anything more (even though you’ve spent the entire book being an emo kid over her existence and how much you adore her). Dude, what’s the point of being shady like that? You have spent over 50% of this novel pining for her and wanting to be with her, and every other character— even your dad, who used his precious breath telling you to get over yourself and be honest— has spent the whole of the novel echoing that horribly deluded presumption. Elliot is at fault too. As soon as Wade pops through her bedroom window, she knows he’s going to pull a nail and bail, but decides to sleep with him anyway because she feels he needs her and she’ll do it despite the certainty of being emotionally eviscerated. Girl, I know you love him but he is not worth it: love yourself first. Find a man who will be consistent about wanting you and who treats you well all the time, not just when it’s convenient for him. This is a love story, I’m supposed to be swooning, not utterly turned off by the prospect of a relationship from the beginning to the end. /END SPOILERS.
I’m sure you can already tell, but A Thousand Letters is something I can’t endorse on the shelf (which is a shame, because when I sat down to read it I was almost rabidly determined to like it). But with that definitive declaration, I also must admit I don’t read much in the way of purely-romance novels; if a romance develops over the course of a bigger picture, that’s cool, but I don’t go out of my way to hunt through the romance section at the bookstore. Honestly, I really enjoy the way Hart incorporated poetry into her book, and if you’re into contemporary new adult (it has a 4.07 average rating on Goodreads) you might love this. It all boils down to personal taste. If the idea of a love story inspired by Austen that includes beautiful poetry intrigues you, you can grab it here.