Intelligent, sexy, and fortyish, Helen MacFarquhar is a woman in control of her life and everyone in it—until an anonymous love letter falls into her hands one summer morning. Helen has been leading a blissful existence as the proprietor of a small bookstore in a quaint New England seaside town. She beguiles her customers into buying the titles she recommends, and flirts shamelessly with nearly every one of the town’s eccentric residents.
But Helen’s self-confidence falters when the love letter arrives in her mail. “How do you fall in love?” the letter asks, and the question becomes Helen’s obsession, in this “smart, moving, and funny” (Detroit Free Press) story by the New York Times–bestselling author of The Three Weissmanns of Westport and They May Not Mean To, But They Do.
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York, and Venice, California
Date of Birth:1953
Place of Birth:Bridgeport, Connecticut
Education:B.A., Barnard College, 1976
Read an Excerpt
THE HONEYSUCKLE WAS everywhere the day the letter arrived, like heat. Wild roses bloomed in hedges of tendrils and perfume. There were fat bees, dirigible bees, plump and miniature. It was a sweet, tangled morning, and the sun rose, leisurely, in a spectacular blush. Helen sat on the porch and she saw the day, right from the beginning, ripening like an apple. June was the month that couldn't last, the breezes so scented with blossoms that the flowers themselves trembled and swayed, intoxicated. An ant crawled across the arm of Helen's chair, onto the table and into her coffee. Ants were admirable, she recalled.
The letter came on a Wednesday late in June, the morning that had begun so well. The morning had continued well, too. Bluebirds, a pair, had grazed on Helen's lawn, as openly as fat Guernsey cows. Helen's coffee tasted particularly good, coming from a new, fragrant bag bought only the day before. Steam rose from the mug. There was milk, unspoiled, in the refrigerator, enough for not just one, but two cups of coffee. A miracle, she thought. Like Chanukah.
As Helen drove to her store that morning, she felt that her life was a good one, even with her daughter away at camp and her ex-husband making so much money. She loved her store, loved the books lined up neatly on their shelves, and loved, even more, to sell them. "I'm very good at selling," Helen liked to say, but what she meant was: I love to sell, to talk you into it, to make you my customer, to make you mine.
She drove beneath overhanging branches and new, summery leaves, and she was not only content, but pleased by her own contentment, as if happiness were an accomplishment, a good grade, an honor. She had never liked being dissatisfied. She found it so dissatisfying.
No one likes being dissatisfied, her ex-husband had said. One just is. And she had left him to it.
He's awfully rich now, she thought, turning the key in the door, walking across the sloping floor of the shop. She threw her keys into a drawer behind the counter. Awfully, awfully rich.
Her grandfather had been rich, too. He sold plumbing supplies and made millions. Helen barely met expenses in her store — books were not spigots. But sometimes she could convince her customers books were as necessary as indoor plumbing and, on a good day, as marvelous as running water.
Helen basked momentarily in what she had made for herself. Some things, like the tilted little house in which she'd opened the bookstore, she had to admit that she had not actually made. But I found it, she thought. I saw it for what it could be. And the town — she had grown up in Pequot. But I remembered it, Helen thought. I came back.
Horatio Street Books had four small rooms. Poetry took up the smallest, less than six feet long, five feet wide, a windowless closet really, slender volumes and stout collections side by side from floor to ceiling. The Death of Poetry Room, Helen called it, privately, to herself, in honor of its vaultlike dimensions and its everlasting quiet. She stocked it stubbornly, a foolish believer bringing shiny trinkets, cow offal, marigolds, to a shrine.
Helen smiled at the shelves of poetry, at all the shelves of her store. The two main rooms were filled with fiction and general nonfiction. The fourth room, tucked away in the back of the store, was devoted to military history. This had been Helen's inspiration, a whim, really, that had panned out and so had been elevated in her personal mythology to an inspiration.
The shelves in this room contained more general histories, too, as well as a little sociology and anthropology, the theoretical studies favored at the college nearby, and a good-sized women's history section. But military history dominated. And military history sold — the Civil War and George Custer leading the ranks. It sold daily, to the same customers. They were voracious, insatiable, like mystery readers, only male. Helen had put the mystery shelves quite close to the military history shelves, hoping the two would somehow cross-pollinate, their fruit a new hybrid customer. Occasionally she took this task on herself, bullying someone to buy a mystery along with the new Civil War history he wanted; or to buy Son of the Morning Star in addition to the new Patricia Highsmith. But the seed never took, and Helen soon gave up. Each readership stuck to its own, inbred as Hapsburgs, as hillbillies.
The mail lay on the floor beneath the mail slot, splayed and exhausted after its long journey, its many, various journeys, a group of strangers with only one thing in common, and that one thing was Helen MacFarquhar. She got all her mail at the store, never giving out her home address. She liked to consolidate, liked the abundance that greeted her. And when she saw her name spelled out like this on all these envelopes, she liked that, too. Helen MacFarquhar. It looked beautiful to her. She loved her name and hadn't even considered changing it when she got married. It made her think of her father, whom she missed, who was always called Mac. Though whenever she herself wrote it, she was tempted to write: Helen MacFarquhar, Jewess. For the sake of full disclosure and, more important, chauvinism. Half Jewess, anyway.
She loved her mail when she saw it lying there, so promising, such bounty, a cornucopia of greetings and checks and invitations and information, fruit spilling from the bowl, the daily harvest of daily life — though most of it turned out to be nothing, flyers and come-ons for car washes or for credit cards she already had, bills and the payment of bills, urgent sweepstakes that beckoned to her misspelled name. But there were also early copies of new books sent by hopeful publishers or anxious friends from the world she had left behind. Letters and postcards came from former neighbors or a roommate from college or her mother, on one of her trips, or a customer seeking information.
On that Wednesday, there were many letters, a pile of large manila envelopes, white business envelopes, small square envelopes of eggshell or powder blue. "Dear Friend." But she was neither dear nor a friend to the correspondent. "Dear Member." But she did not belong and did not care to, no matter how many times she was selected and preapproved. "Dear Sir"? No. "Dear Resident." Yes. That would do. She liked the sound of that. She was a resident, after all. Who wasn't? Of someplace.
Helen went upstairs to the office and made herself more coffee before moving on to "Dear Reader." Very nice. I am a reader, certainly, she thought, then tossed the letter, unread. A few "Dear Helens." Fine. And best of all — "Dear Mommy." How had this note from Emily come so soon? She'd driven her to camp only yesterday, and the card was postmarked two days ago. Helen grinned then. This letter was meant to be there, in the store, to greet her, to soothe the loneliness. Emily had sent it early, before she'd left home. Helen touched her cheek to it, as if the postcard were another cheek.
I bet I miss you already! I bet I'm having a really good time at camp anyway. I probably made a good friend already. I wonder what her name is. I hope I don't have poison ivy yet. I love you. XXOO
(The one, the only, the greatest!!!
Soon to be a motion picture starring
Emily, the one, the only ...)
She wondered if Emily had gotten her letter — the one Helen had sent early so that it would be there waiting for Emily when she woke up the first day, the letter sent to soothe Emily's loneliness. Was she sitting on the edge of her cot reading it now in the dim woody light of the bunk, as Helen read Emily's letter, again, and then once more?
It was altogether a rich harvest that Wednesday, a further fulfillment of a sunrise that had ripened like an apple and warmed the patch of earth on which Helen had chosen to escape dissatisfaction. She opened one letter, from her mother, then put it in her pocket, unread.
Helen sat on the old couch she kept in the front room of the store and picked through the remaining envelopes. One letter was from a psychiatrist friend who had enclosed an article he'd written on the difficulty of discriminating between manic behavior in the very rich and very rich behavior in the very rich ("'How,'" George had scribbled across the top of the Xerox, "as Dorothy Parker remarked when Coolidge died, 'can you tell?'"; there was another that invited her to cousin Judy's wedding; and a formal business letter from Dan the Ex which discussed Emily's camp fees. "Hi there! Read any good books lately?" he had scrawled at the end. "Yours, Dan." A textbook editor who had dropped out of publishing, gone to business school, and made a fortune as an investment banker, Dan had complicated feelings about Helen and her postmarital career.
She carefully filed the checks and bills and, tossing ever more junk mail into the wastebasket, watched the envelopes and flyers soar gaily to oblivion. As they thumped one by one into the can, she thought, That's why they call them flyers. Then, gazing idly down at the sofa, on which still more letters and envelopes lay waiting, Helen saw it: an oddly folded sheet of white paper, rising from the flat envelopes around it, bent up in the middle, uneven and asymmetrical, a tiny hump, an improper mound.
Helen reached for it, unthinking. She sipped coffee, the letter in her hand, crushed against the cup. Only later did she recall how wrong the letter had looked, the toadstool in the garden of her correspondence, how ill-fitted it had been, lurching up from the smooth surrounding layers. Now she unfolded it, almost mechanically, and began to read.
How does one fall in love? Do you trip? Do you stumble, lose your balance and drop to the sidewalk, graze your knee, graze your heart? Do you crash to the stony ground? Is there a precipice, from which you float, over the edge, forever?
I know I'm in love when I see you, I know when I long to see you. Not a muscle has moved. Leaves hang unruffled by any breeze. The air is still. I have fallen in love without taking a step. When did this happen? I haven't even blinked.
I'm on fire. Is that too banal for you? It's not, you know. You'll see. It's what happens. It's what matters. I'm on fire.
I no longer eat, I forget to eat. Food looks silly to me, irrelevant. If I even notice it. But I notice nothing. My thoughts are full and raging, a house full of brothers, related by blood, feuding blood feuds:
"I'm in love."
"Typically stupid choice."
"I am, though, I'm racked by love as if love were pain."
"Go ahead. Fuck up your life. It's all wrong and you know it. Wake up. Face it."
"There's only one face, it's all I see, awake or asleep."
I threw the book out the window last night. I tried to forget. You are all wrong for me, I know it, but I no longer care for my thoughts unless they're thoughts of you. When I'm close to you, in your presence, I feel your hair brush my cheek when it does not. I look away from you, sometimes. Then I look back.
When I tie my shoes, when I peel an orange, when I drive my car, when I lie down each night without you, I remain,
As ever, Ram
Helen stared at the letter, at the diagonal creases where it had been folded, folded all wrong; at the neatly typed lines; at the signature, also typed. There was no date.
A sudden warmth pressed upon her, unfamiliar, a tenderness, someone else's tenderness. Why is this letter in my hands? I am a voyeur, she thought. This is not my letter. It was not sent to me. And yet, I hold it in my hands. I have read it and been touched by its sentiments. Someone has made love to me, someone I don't know. I've been letter-raped! I'm a peeping Tom, too. Is this my letter? Perhaps I'm having an affair and don't know it.
Helen had many admirers in Pequot, certainly. She cultivated them. They were a kind of hobby, better even than gardening, which she also enjoyed. Helen's customers came to chat, to sit for a while in the armchairs she kept in each room, to read beneath the lamps (which, always attentive to the details of bourgeois cultural comfort, she made sure were fitted with hundred-watt bulbs), and then, having chatted and read in the bright circles of light, to buy.
To buy what? Helen sometimes thought, amused. For first and foremost, she knew, they came for her. They walked through the door, expectant and hopeful, waiting to feel the words, the glances, the smiles Helen bestowed, sometimes just casually, even unconsciously — flung! — but always with unerring accuracy.
Helen was a flirt. She flirted in the spirit of good fellowship and because she loved to flirt. She loved the first moment when the other side was pierced by the arrow of her solicitude; loved the sudden, almost imperceptible retreat, loved the hesitant advance of the return glance, or a smile or just a cough. When the customer came back — and the customer always came back — the gentle, breathless volley would resume. Helen offered just the right volume of verse or a Tuscan cookbook or a novel from Black Sparrow Press. Helen offered a light touch of her arm against the customer's arm, or a joke, or a whispered farewell. To old customers, an embrace, a little too long, a little too abruptly terminated; or a gentle, languid squeeze of the hands. And always, the warm, intelligent beam of her attention, an exclusive circle of light surrounding each of them, one hundred watts, pure Helen.
The first year she was back in Pequot, Helen did more than flirt. She slept. Late. And with whomever she pleased. Having opened the store, at one, one-thirty, Helen would survey the few customers and think, I'm free, self-supporting. I have a child; my biological clock no longer tolls the hours. My husband is gone; I can cook with butter. I can sleep around, around the clock, around and around.
And she did. Widowers looking for solace, divorced men still reeling from court — short or tall, bald or ponytailed, too old, too young, too sweet, too sad — they wandered into the store looking for the latest novel by John Grisham and came out with two by Julian Barnes and Helen's phone number.
She slept with them with the intensity of a swimmer in training doing laps. But she wasn't training for anything. This was it. She had already won. She was enjoying her prizes. And eventually she tired of sleeping, as she had expected she might. Some of her prizes didn't like being prizes all that much, wanted to be partners or husbands, or mistakenly thought she was the prize, or turned out to be talking prizes with little of interest to say, or felt that, as prizes, they deserved the most prominent place on her mantelpiece. Helen began to get up early, very early, when no one else was about, when no one stirred.
I'm free, she thought. Self-supporting. And Helen had flirted.
She stood up and looked out the window, and the store felt dark and hollow, the air dead. Whose letter, Helen? A customer, perhaps. But which customer? Outside, a boundless blue sky, clean and cooled by its own innocent breezes, seemed far away, inaccessible. She folded the letter and ... and what? Do I throw it away? Helen thought. With the letters from the American Cancer Society and the Nature Conservancy? This letter belongs to someone. It should be returned to its owner, like a stray. Returned to its owner. You know — Goat.
Helen stamped her foot. This letter had stumbled inadvertently upon her blooming fields of mail. It had tripped and fallen and floated uselessly, like a frog in a swimming pool. And she had discovered it the next morning, meaningless and bloated, where it did not belong.
She unfolded the letter, folded it, unfolded it. It must have fallen from an envelope. Which one? She pulled papers from the trash, tried to match the letter with other letters, tried to fit it comfortably in an envelope, any envelope, the one from George, from Dan, from the woman who had come to run the library, from the University of Chicago Press.
It's not mine, she thought, cramming it where it would not go, like the feet of Cinderella's stepsisters. It's not mine, it's not mine.
"It's not mine," she said aloud.
Helen put the letter from Ram to Goat in a drawer behind the counter. And then, she could not think why, she locked it. You'll be safe there, she thought, as if the letter were a beast, easily angered, easily misunderstood.
Excerpted from "The Love Letter"
Copyright © 1995 Cathleen Schine.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It's been about 10 years, so about all I remember about this book is that I really enjoyed it. More specifically, it's the only book to ever make me miss my stop while reading on the bus. And I think that happened at least twice. I also remember embarrassing myself by laughing a couple times while reading it on the bus. It was the second of three books I've read by Schine. I really need to get to the others. Sadly, I loaned this one out years ago and never got it back. Otherwise, I'd probably read it again.
Interesting, but not as good as her other works. Story of a newly divorced woman finding her way in a town, finding friends, love interest, relationship with her daughters. Keep reading this author nonetheless.
The summary: Helen, the single-mom boss of her own bookstore in a college town, finds a love letter of which the writer and recipient is unknown to her, but it changes her life anyway. Her thoughts turn to love and letters, and her new 20-year-old employee Johnny, who has a crush on her. Their secret affair tears at them and threatens to be exposed as their various family members come back to live with them in Pequod.As for the writing, the first half is torture, with its repetitveness and overall uninterestingness. The characters are either boring or slightly repulsive. Helen is a priveleged woman who delights in being a bitch. She loves to be flattered, has affairs with everyone almost indiscriminantly, and her romance with Johnny is cringe-inducing at first. Finally, Schine seems to warm up to the story, and the second half is a little bit better. This may be due to the introduction of the better characters later in the story: Helen's mother and grandmother. Helen's mother also has a secret, one you'll soon deduce before Helen, and the grandmother conveys that fashionable, stately aura that all entertaining, rich, elderly, literary characters do. The book is about people of leisure and money, which hinders it at first, but love finally becomes the subject later on. Helen's endearing transformation saves the book from being completely boring, but ultimately Schine falls short of creating a memorable book.
I can't tell you how many times I've read this book (I tend to re-read it just before Valentine's Day every year)! The premise is a 40 something woman who owns a bookstore finding an anonymous love letter and how it changes everything about her within one summer. Not only is it a love story -- you have to listen to how Schine describes things! It's almost tangible -- but this book inspires me to do something I only dream about: Open my own bookstore. In a word, THE LOVE LETTER is delicious.
Pretty good novel about a 40ish woman who finds a love letter and wonders if it's to her, and the love affairs it precipitates.
I've forgotten this book. I read the novel, I watched the movie, which I remember thinking of as cute. But I simply cannot tell you what took place inside of it. So I guess that may be telling of the book itself.
back then . . sigh . right there w/ the ol Leif Schrieber flic, about friendship in twixt of disfunctional boy/girlfriend/ships . . I look forward to reading Schine's book. Hope this review was functional / and bearable . . Thank you
Heard about the book because of the movie, which was okay but good in parts. The setting and the bookstore especially. Oh and Ellen of course. So while browsing the shelves (isn't it always), I saw the book and the cover is nice, what with the beach in the background. Gives off a cozy vibe in a way. Anyway, you have a bunch of characters, a mysterious love letter and a bookstore. But mostly it revolves around two characters, bookstore employees Helen and Johnny and a love affair begins. All because of a letter one thinks wrote to the other. Well sort of. I liked the writing at times, some of the descriptions were poetic in a way and set the setting well. I wouldn't have minded reading about the everyday lives of the employees at the bookstore in a small quiet town. It has a slow pace, and so took my time reading it. It was a cute if at times weird story.
I liked this book, though not quite as much as The Evolution of Jane, which I think is easier to digest. My judgement might be biased, though, since I saw the movie before reading the book and found the movie to be superior in many ways. Still, an enjoyable read. Cathleen Schine is a wonderful writer.
Perfect love story of a smart woman who finally finds love. A mysterious letter makes the plot even more interesting. Shows that love can be found in people who seem so dissimilar from each other.
I tried to like this book, but by page 61, I had to put it down. The main charachter, Helen, is a self-absorbed tramp and an unfit mother. She kisses people on a whim. She flirts and sleeps with anyone in town. She talks about how much she misses her daughter, who is away at camp, but I don't believe that she thinks of anyone by herself. She freely drops the F-bomb casually, as if that were speech becoming of a lady...which she is not. The plot is absurd. That she could be as callous and crude as she is represented to be and as popular as she is also purported to be, is impossible. This character is lewd, obstinant, selfish, childish, and impetuous. Do not pick this book up unless you admire loose women who are horrible mothers. Disgusting, and not a very funny book, either.
I do not go in for romantic drivel, so I began to read this book with a skeptical eye. By page 25, I was captivated. I loved the main character Helen, with her tough/vulnerable demeanor. The sub-plot lines were enough to keep my interest piqued throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed this one!
As a mother of a 'young man' I was very disappointed that Helen, who I at first liked, had no self-control or conscience. I suppose this 'me only' attitude is modern and I'm not.