If you truly are a “Mr. Knightley,” I can do this. I can write these letters. I trust you chose the name as a reflection of your own character. George Knightley is a good and honorable man — even better than Fitzwilliam Darcy, and few women put anyone above Mr. Darcy.
Yes, Darcy’s got the tempestuous masculinity and brooding looks, but Knightley is a kinder, softer man with no pretense or dissimilation. Yes, he’s a gentleman. And I can write with candor to a silent gentleman, and I can believe that he will not violate this trust.
(from Dear Mr. Knightley, page 13)
I must admit that when I picked out Katherine Reay’s epistolary novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, as a birthday gift (per my husband’s request), I thought it was a Jane Austen-inspired novel. It is, in a way, but it really is a modern-day retelling of Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs. I haven’t read — and to be honest, never heard of — Webster’s novel, so I can’t make any comparisons between the two, but I can say that Reay’s version is a charming, overall feel-good novel.
Reay’s heroine is Samantha Moore, a 23-year-old orphan living in a group home. She can stay there until she’s 25, provided she attends school, and with her attempt to break out on her own proving to be a failure, she takes advantage of an offer from a mysterious benefactor. This “Mr. Knightley” will pay her tuition for the master’s program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, provided she keeps up a written correspondence with him about “things that matter.”
Sam is socially awkward, not knowing how to make friends or interact with other people, and speaking and writing in the words and styles of her favorite classic authors when things become too difficult. In these letters to “Mr. Knightley,” however, she can be herself, without worrying what he will say because the conversation is one-sided. No matter how hard Sam tries to change, to make friends, to forge a career in journalism, to write these letters effortlessly, she always finds something to hold her back. But her relationships with her favorite novelist Alex Powell, Professor and Mrs. Muir, the tough Dr. Johnson, and Kyle, a rough youth at the group home, might just put her on the path to finding herself. However, the journey isn’t an easy one, and when her curiosity about “Mr. Knightley” gets the best of her, the world she so carefully built begins to crumble.
I’m a big fan of epistolary novels, and I found it easy to lose myself in Sam’s story. Reay’s writing is smooth, the literary references are relevant and fun, and the Christian elements of the story aren’t preachy. Sam is easy to like, though her naivety is a bit unbelievable at times, especially for a girl who spent time on the streets. However, I couldn’t help but root for her, and she won me over in the end.
Despite its predictability, Dear Mr. Knightley is a charming novel. Reay shows how easy it can be to lose one’s way and sense of self after years of feeling worthless, but it is possible — with some tough love, some hope, and a whole lot of courage — to find value in oneself. Dear Mr. Knightley‘s literary connections are what caught my eye, but its heartwarming story of a young women looking to find her voice, personally and professionally, is what prompted me to finish the book in one sitting.
Disclosure: Dear Mr. Knightley is from my personal library.
© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.