Book Review

He wrote, she wrote: a love story

Hartford CourantMay 28, 2006 

Her name is Jane, but she signs the wedding registry as "Miss Chubby Petunia" because she hates the way her dress clings. He's John but signs the book as "Ted Nugent" from "The Kingdom of Rock and Roll." He also mutilates his boutonniere. And pretty soon these misfit wedding guests wind up in flagrante delicto -- or nearly so -- on the floor of the coat closet.

Which brings us to "Which Brings Me to You," a clever and touching exploration of love and longing by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott. Composed of letters that read like short stories, this epistolary novel cruises beyond its potentially gimmicky structure down the winding road of a revelatory correspondence. Destination: Who knows?

Stopping short of paradise by the coat-closet light -- you can hear the brakes screeching -- John and Jane agree to something more daring than baring skin to a stranger. Afraid they're foolishly speeding when they should go slow, John proposes writing letters confessing past connections and indiscretions, as a way to get to know each other. Then, maybe, they'll meet again.

It's a plot device that plays off the vogue for online confessions and cyber-romances, but these would-be lovers choose the old-fashioned route of ink on paper. Jane demurs at making the mailbox a confession box, but John asks: "Isn't there something you want to tell me, something filthy and lovely and true?"

Turns out there sure is. Their letters are an intriguing mix of funny, rueful, poignant and erotic, as these two wary, wounded people reveal themselves, one painful layer at a time. He leads off with a high-school love, Jodi, and his adolescent failure to fully appreciate her. Jane launches into the tale of her Mohawk-ed bad boy Michael and his Asbury Park pals.

John tells her all about Eve, an artist and "older woman" -- 24 to his 19. Jane counters with Elton: over-privileged, unstrung, unstable. John reveals his attachment to his sister, Lisa, a complex emotional knot Jane will struggle to untangle. Jane explores her need to break rules. Both describe their parents' flawed marriages, which scarred these too-observant-for-their-own-good offspring.

The revelations go on. There's cruel Lina, who tears John's heart out and his chest hair off -- a comic but chilling tale. There's Pascal, the charming Frenchman who ends things with a slap. There's sweet Sunny, the pastry chef with the little daughter who flummoxes John, and Alex and Deirdre, who live with a menagerie of taxidermy-ed trophies and embrace Jane in a menage a trois.

This you-show-me-yours, I'll-show-you-mine correspondence, greatly enlivened by the coruscating humor so common to bruised romantics turned cynics, even includes some letters purportedly written by, and to, John's, um, private parts. But not everything's funny. When we get to John's affair with needy Maggie and Jane's engagement to shallow Mark, we see how damaged they have become.

This bittersweet blend will be familiar to fans of Almond, best known for his best-selling nonfiction book "Candyfreak," but also the accomplished short story writer of "My Life in Heavy Metal" and "The Evil B.B. Chow." Almond is that rare guy who can write convincingly from a woman's viewpoint. Here that's Baggott's task, and the author of the best-selling "Girl Talk," "The Miss America Family" and "The Madam" is in fine form.

They are after something important: answers to some knotty questions. If you could have just one wish, "would you rather be loved, but not understood, or understood, but not really loved?" And would you be willing to expose "the endless versions of yourself" to make that wish come true?

We get the answers when John and Jane meet again, in a flurry of nervous expectations, surprising awkwardness and a wild ride on a snowy night. The real ride, though, is the one they take through the past, via those no-holds-barred letters, those brave and honest confessions, which bring them, at last, exactly where they needed to go.

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