Late on a frozen February evening, a young woman is running through the streets of London. Having fled from her abusive boyfriend and with nowhere to go, Jess stumbles onto a forgotten lane where a small, clearly unlived in old house offers her best chance of shelter for the night. The next morning, a mysterious letter arrives and when she can’t help but open it, she finds herself drawn inexorably into the story of two lovers from another time.
In London 1942, Stella meets Dan, a US airman, quite by accident, but there is no denying the impossible, unstoppable attraction that draws them together. Dan is a B-17 pilot flying his bomber into Europe from a British airbase; his odds of survival are one in five. In the midst of such uncertainty, the one thing they hold onto is the letters they write to each other. Fate is unkind and they are separated by decades and continents. In the present, Jess becomes determined to find out what happened to them.
Letters to the Lost is a heartwarming dual narrative story which is set in 2011 and 1943. While their are multiple narratives, the main protagonists are two young women from different eras who are more similar than they first appear. Alone in the world after the death of her beloved grandmother, Jess has grown tired of being used by her abusive boyfriend and walks away with nothing more than fifty pounds in her pocket. While hiding in Nancy’s house, Jess hits rock bottom but the discovery of the old letters and her subsequent correspondence with Dan will give her a renewed sense of purpose. Preoccupied with her new quest, Jess is eventually able to take charge of her own life and even finds true love along the way.
I really liked the character of Jess and it is immensely satisfying watching her blossom from a fearful girl into to a mature young woman who is determined to achieve things. The relationship between Jess and Will is sweet but it pales in comparison to the grander romance between Dan and Stella. Although I did like him, Will is nothing like Dan and I yearned for him to stand up for himself a little more, especially to his abusive boss who behaves atrociously. The addition of Will’s depression felt tagged on to me as it wasn’t really explored adequately, and it started to come across more as self pity than anything else and a chance for Jess to come to the rescue.
Back in the 1940s, the orphaned Stella seeks to fulfil her dreams of having a family by marrying the first man to propose but her dreams are left in tatters when her husband seems incapable of touching her. Lost, Stella is merely going through the motions when she meets the handsome American pilot who will teach her about love and give her what her heart desires. However, the fact Stella is a married woman isn’t the only thorn in their relationship as the war intensifies and Dan is put in increasing danger. In the same way as Jess evolves, Stella does the same thing as she is a rather weak character when she marries Charles but her love for Dan changes something inside her and she becomes stronger. However, the big difference is Jess makes the changes on her own while Stella seems to need Dan’s help, although I think this is more a reflection of the different time periods more than anything else.
I’m not going to reveal whether Jess is successful in finding Stella or not but you will definitely feel regret over the wasted opportunity Stella had to be with Dan. Dan is a wonderfully strong man who is incredibly patient and loving towards Stella, but his protective behaviour is never smothering. Stella often refers to Dan as being ‘golden’ which sums him up perfectly but I think he comes across as a little too perfect while Charles is the one-dimensional villain of the piece. It comes as no surprise when Charles is revealed to be homosexual as the author isn’t very subtle about it, however I don’t think it was explored adequately. Charles was never given his own point of view, despite the fact many minor characters were, and I think this is a pity as it would’ve went a long way towards explaining his behaviour and his later decisions.
The characters portrayed in Stella’s village, like Ada and Marjorie, were fun to read about, as was their camaraderie in the face of such deprivation. The war years are incredibly detailed which helps bring the setting to life and it is obvious the author undertook a lot of research as even the tiniest of details are not forgotten. The move between the past and present was seamless and I liked how the author contrasted modern living with that of the past: such as Dan’s letters making way for communication by email.
Due to the war setting, there is of course a lot of tragedy but poor Stella seems to have had more than her fair share of misery over the years as the angst just kept on coming and was in danger of taking on the level of a soap opera. The latter stages of the novel were a little uneven as the focus pulled away from Stella more towards Jess’s budding romance with Will but I suppose it was necessary as Jess and Will are eventually going to get the happiness denied Stella and Dan. The ending is a long time in coming but it is emotionally satisfying and will leave you in tears.