By Katherine Reay
Thomas Nelson - 2013
Samantha Moore has always hidden behind the words of others-namely her favorite characters in literature. Now, she will learn to write her own story---by giving that story to a complete stranger.
Growing up orphaned and alone, Sam found her best friends in the works of Austen, Dickens, and the Brontë sisters. The problem is that she now relates to others more comfortably as Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre than as herself.
But life for this twenty-three-year-old is about to get stranger than fiction, when an anonymous benefactor (calling himself "Mr. Knightley") offers to put Sam through the prestigious Medill School of Journalism. There is only one catch: Sam must write frequent letters to the mysterious donor, detailing her progress.
As Sam's program and peers force her to confront her past, she finds safety in her increasingly personal letters to Mr. Knightley. And when Sam meets eligible, best-selling novelist Alex Powell, those letters unfold a story of love and literature that feels as if it's pulled from her favorite books. But when secrets come to light, Sam is - once again - made painfully aware of how easily trust can be broken.
Reay's debut novel follows one young woman's journey as she sheds her protective persona and embraces the person she was meant to become.
Sam attended Medill School of Journalism
Katherine's letter-writing approach is fresh, a form rarely seen in Christian fiction. Any initial reservations I might have had quickly disappeared as I began to get caught up in the action and fast-paced dialogue of Sam's letters to Mr. Knightley. What at first seems to be a light, Austen-based romance surprisingly goes far deeper and turns out to be so much more.
Katherine is very knowledgeable on the foster care system and classic novels; her love for classical fiction shines through every page. It is my understanding that this story is a modern version of Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, which I've never read. Neither have I read the Austen classics from which these characters frequently quote, but that in no way lessened my understanding and enjoyment of this novel.
Sam is a delightfully human heroine - fun, quirky, smart, warm, loving, flawed and broken all at the same time. As a child who had known abuse and neglect, she used literature almost as a defense mechanism, erecting walls around herself to keep from getting hurt, only to discover that "no matter how many characters I hide behind, how much work I bury myself beneath, my past still pushes me every day and haunts me every night." She seemed to find a sanctuary in the letters she was required to write, and Mr. Knightley became a glorified diary as she began to pour her heart out to her unknown benefactor.
"I want so badly to believe that God cares,
that all this pain has a purpose
and that none of it tarnishes me forever."
Sam and Alex are complex characters and there's a great supporting cast as well. I loved Sam's rapport with the young teen Kyle and how they helped each other open up about the abuse they had experienced. And I wish I could pull Professor and Mrs. Muir off the pages and into my own life. One of my favorite takeaways from this story is the Professor's admonition to Sam concerning her background: "It's your past - your story to share. But never let something so unworthy define you."
While the spiritual element is subtle, grace is a major theme from beginning to end. When Sam questions Father John at Grace House about the grant, he tells her, "Consider it grace - a gift unwarranted and undeserved." Sam felt so real that I was walking along beside her as she gradually matured both emotionally and spiritually. Her words give voice to the grace she received: "How can I not believe that there is a God who exists and loves, when the people before me are infused with that love and pour it out daily? I still can't grasp that it's for me, but what if it is?"
Storylines are tied up pretty neatly at the conclusion, but that flowed nicely with the theme of grace and I loved it. I especially enjoyed the last section which was written outside the letter format.
Rarely do I finish a novel and wish I had time to start again at the beginning, but I think a second reading would reveal so many things that I missed the first time. Dear Mr. Knightley should easily appeal to fans of the classics, but I don't hesitate to recommend it to all readers.
In Katherine's words . . .
"I think Professor Muir says it best when he talks about Sam’s past: 'Never let something so unworthy define you.' Sam is haunted by her past and it’s damaging her future, but she need not be defined by it. It doesn’t need to trap her. Yet, that realization, and forgiving all that happened, is so terribly hard and wrenchingly painful. But Sam can be free. And there is tremendous power and hope in that.
"What I intended to do was the story of a young woman seeking for answers, a place to stand, a voice of her own, people to love and something to believe. And I think we can all relate to that.
"Lizzy and Jane is next and it will be out next fall. Lizzy had more humor and confidence available to her than Sam did. But she’s got some struggles ahead of her as well. This story has all the big guns: sisters, conflict, food, Jane Austen, Hemingway, love, and breast cancer. I know that last one is a bummer, but it’s a reality that so many of us experience either personally or walking the journey with family and friends. Basically Lizzy and Jane is the story of a young woman, Lizzy, who has excised love from her life and, as she helps her sister through chemotherapy, she starts to put it back in – in all its wonderful and varied forms."
Visit Katherine's website at katherinereay.com to learn more.
This book was provided by Litfuse Publicity in exchange for my honest review.