I thank Julie C. Gardner and Velvet Morning Press for the opportunity to review this fine debut novel.
Epistolary novels–novels in which the narrative is entrusted to letters between characters–have long fascinated me. Ever since I read Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (or parts of it–it is very long), I have thought of this 18th-century masterpiece as the quintessential example of the form. Despite its length, it is exquisitely suspenseful because the author has such ingenious control over disclosure of the facts and the secrets, little by little. This feature should make the form attractive to authors of any era, but how does one go about writing an epistolary novel today? How does one craft a story through letters that feels both contemporary and natural?
In her new novel, Letters for Scarlet, Julie C. Gardner has figured out how do this beautifully by adopting a hybrid technique. The story unfolds through narrative and dialogue that we expect to find in a novel, but the main revelations that bind the story together and illuminate its characters’ motives occur in the abundant letters inserted throughout. Gardner handles both ways of telling her story with sureness of purpose and a very genuine voice. Or, should I say, “voices,” because the letters require her to speak in many voices. But nearly all the letters are intended for the same recipient, Scarlet Hinden, one of the novel’s two pivotal characters. Most of the letters are from her friend Corie Harper.
Both Corie and Scarlet are 28. Corie is an English teacher and aspiring writer, married to Tuck Slater. They would like to have children but so far have been frustrated by trying, something that deeply wounds Corie who already has some nagging doubts about her marriage. Scarlet is a busy attorney and in a relationship with Gavin; she is expecting a baby but struggling with paralyzing fears about being a mother; she is skeptical of ever finding happiness and holding on to it. What is the connection between these two couples, and how is it influencing their pain in the present moment?
Corie and Scarlet were inseparable friends in high school, and along with Tuck, they were a solid trio until something happened that destroyed the women’s friendship and upended all their lives. We know that the trio turned into a triangle when Corie and Tuck became a couple, but clearly much more must have transpired to cause the kind of unbridgeable rift they are suffering. It doesn’t seem like anything will change their situation, until Corie receives a letter from the past: the letter she wrote 10 years ago to her future self. It was an assignment in her senior English class (and a very clever mechanism to introduce the first letters into the story). Since she wrote it before her friendship with Scarlet fell apart, Corie feels the loss even more acutely, the aching absence of something that was once unquestionable. Corie begins to write a series of letters to Scarlet, ones she thinks she’ll never dare send, but which allow her to open her heart to the friend she still needs so desperately. Here are a few bits of her first letter:
Did you get your ten-year letter from Mr. Roosevelt? Until Tuck handed me that envelope, I had completely forgotten about the assignment. But since I read those words from the past, I’ve been prompted by a desire (more like a need) to say a few things to you. Some old. Some new. All of them true. For what it’s worth. …
I’m sorry we didn’t tell you about us sooner. I suppose the secrets we keep can be as dangerous as the ones we share. Maybe more so.
Sometimes I wonder how different our lives would be if the three of us had loved each other less….
In a surprising move, Scarlet’s mother visits Corie and entrusts her with Scarlet’s 10-year letter. Corie wants to deliver this powderkeg letter but she hesitates, since Scarlet has refused all contact since high school.
I read the last two thirds of this novel in one long sitting–it was that compelling and I didn’t want to stop until I discovered what tragedy drove these friends apart and how–or whether–they could move on from it. This fine debut novel convincingly explores the ties of love and friendship at the breaking point.
Pain can take a lifetime to heal, but hope lasts even longer…
Corie Harper is twenty-eight years old when she is first visited by a ghost—in the form of a graduation letter she forgot she wrote. Although she spent a decade burying that desperate girl and her regrets, each page resurrects the past, dragging Corie back to a time when all she craved was Scarlet Hinden’s friendship and Tuck Slater’s heart. But she couldn’t keep them both and keep her word.
Scarlet is haunted in her own way, by memories of Corie and of a night that left her wishing she were dead. But Scarlet is not only alive, she’s carrying new life: a baby she never wanted and is terrified to have. Convinced she would be a disastrous mother, she questions whether or not she deserves the love of any man. Especially the father of her child.
Letters for Scarlet traces one friendship from deep roots to branches torn by broken promises and loss.
Release date: April 4, 2016
Publisher: Velvet Morning Press
Buy the book: Amazon
About Julie C. Gardner
I’m a former English teacher and lapsed marathon runner who traded in the classroom for a writing nook. I am the co-author of You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth, and a contributor to the upcoming anthology So Glad They Told Me; my essays have appeared in BlogHerVoices of the Year: 2012 and Precipice Literary Anthology. I live in Southern California with my husband, two children, and three dogs.
*Note*: I received an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.