My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Letters In Cardboard Boxes tells the story of an eccentric grandmother and her granddaughter alongside a series of fantastical letters they once exchanged. Their letters once traversed the East River to help Parker escape the loneliness of a childhood without her globe-trekking parents and communicate during her turbulent teenage years. Now, nearly a decade later, Parker begins to rediscover the evidence of this letter writing tradition, as well as the family’s untold stories and, unexpectedly, letters from her grandmother’s own youth that paint a very different portrait of the woman who raised her.
Letters carries us through the universally-shared experience of loss and the process of coping with life’s unexpected twists and turns. Through unusual and bold characters, the story moves through some of its heavier themes with honesty and humor.
Chapters of the novel have been released weekly, chapter by chapter, since September 2011. Through the weekly release of each chapter, the author hopes readers will be given an opportunity to discuss the novel itself and the experience of reading a novel online, reading weekly, and reading within a larger community. In this way, Letters is meant to be both a personal, as well as a shared, experience.
Even before I read it, I liked the idea of this book: the “jacket” blurb made me think of how we never wholly know anyone in our lives, since there are always portions for which we are not present. I liked the idea of Parker getting to know the young girl/woman her Grandmother had been and seeing how that knowledge changed Parker’s view of her Grandmother and herself. I was delighted, then, when Abby Slovin offered me a eBook copy to review.
With my usual focus (some might call it addiction), I read the book within 24 hours. There are few books that take me longer…or is it that I just refuse to leave the alternative universe until I must? One day I may learn to ration my reading. As usual, I shall do my best to avoid plot spoilers – I do so dislike reviews that remove the necessity of reading the book!
The book is split into five parts, the five stages of Parker and her Grandmother’s experiences in this period. I’m not all that bothered by chapters and sections – in a print book, I often don’t notice chapters passing – however I find on a Kindle, they are more obvious and in this case, the Parts worked well.
I had expected a book with the eponymous letters forming the majority of the text, but this was not the case. Abby Slovin uses the letters of Parker’s youth to salt the present day story, drawing the reader’s eye to the parallels between past and present behaviour and thoughts. As in a well seasoned dish the right amount of salt brings out the flavours of the other ingredients, so Abby’s use of the letters gives us timely insight into the characters’ relationships.
The story starts quite slowly and I found Parker a touch annoying, but as I got to know her and understand her personal demons, I found myself with more sympathy for her – even when I wanted her to take a different course of action. The story weaves in a small cast of supporting characters, who touch Parker’s life in the ways other people often touch ours – sometimes fleetingly, sometimes profoundly and sometimes in a timely manner.
On a practical note, the Kindle formatting wasn’t good. There were lots of spurious carriage returns and half sentence paragraphs. I might not notice chapters, but paragraphing is important to my way of reading; sometimes I had to go back over a section and read it “without” the paragraph breaks to get the meaning. It was particularly irritating and confusing during direct speech. One of my pet peeves is extended direct speech where the speakers are not clearly defined throughout; the Kindle formatting again made rereading and decoding necessary in places.
Having said that, it is an issue that is fixable and doesn’t detract from the well written and thought-provoking book. There were several points in the book when I shed tears – for the characters? Yes. For myself? Not telling! There are also points of humour and things to make the reader think. There were a couple of plot developments that had me wanting to shake Parker and a couple where I think the author understood the reality of the situation differently from my experience. I can’t say more as it would be a plot spoiler!
As with many modern books, Abby Slovin includes a set of suggested discussion topics for a book club. I’m not sure yet what I think of this habit. I know people might say I don’t have to read them, but I find it difficult to “close” the book at that point, especially when, as in this case, the formatting ran the last line straight into them. Maybe inserting a “Chapter page” for that section would enable me to leave before the questions. I can see that the questions would be useful for a book club – and these were well thought out and provoking – but I still have the feeling that pulling a book apart destroys its magic, something I have believed since I first had to write literary decompositions in high school.
All in all, this was an enjoyable work and I regard the time reading it and writing this review well spent. It will join the select list of books that I reread. I recommend Letters in Cardboard Boxes to anyone who has relatives.
Readers can download the ebook or obtain paperback copies of the novel through the novel’s website:
I’m claiming this book as No. 30/150 in the Goodreads 2012 Reading Challenge [Link in right hand sidebar].