Epistolary novels have gone in and out of fashion, but they have probably had a resurgence with the advent of email which facilitates a to-and-fro unheard of since the decline of two-deliveries-per-day mail services. I do find myself wondering, though, how many of these email correspondences will survive into the future as mailboxes get culled, email programs are superseded and internet providers change. As with photographs, we have so much digital ‘stuff’ but little of it is treasured and put aside for the future. Nonetheless, I find a rather guilty pleasure in reading epistolary novels – as if I am eavesdropping on a conversation or snooping through someone’s mail – although, of course, these novels are deliberate creations among fictional characters, intended to be read.
The correspondence between Pamela and Chris happens by accident. At 11.10 on the night of her eldest son’s birthday Pamela sends an email to her ex-husband Christophe in Paris, full of guilt and regrets. Unsure of her husband’s email address, she sends it to ‘Chrisxwoods’ at both Hotmail and Gmail. The next day she receives an email from Chrisanthi Woods, from Schenectady, New York, telling her that she has the wrong email address and wishing her luck and hoping that things work out. The relationship starts off rather shyly and tentatively, but right from the start there is an information imbalance, with Pamela over-sharing: “Oh dear- I suppose I do pour out my heart to strangers”. Chris’ responses, however, are rather crisp and abrupt. Chris is older than Pamela, sixty-four years of age, working at SUNY in student enrolments. If characters in one book could invade other books, I had in mind Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge– a rather brusque, snippy woman largely oblivious to the effect that she has on other people.
Pamela, on the other hand, is 51 years old and works in a library. She has her three sons living with her, but the oldest, Raf (Raphael) is obviously angry and lashing out, while she tends to baby the youngest, Baps. She feels that she is lacking all authority with Raf and Claude (the middle son), who fight constantly. She complains about the children at length, until Chris snaps
For Christ’s sake, Pamela, why did you have children if you weren’t prepared to surrender? Everyone says people who don’t have children are selfish. I think it’s people having children for no good reason who are the selfish ones. I’m not sure we should keep emailing each other. My heart is banging so hard I feel like I’m having a heart attack. This isn’t good for me. Bye, Pamelap.67
There is a three week cooling-off, but Pamela keeps going apologizing, complaining, over-sharing. Again, Chris baulks:
Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time?p.83
Chris later apologizes, recognizing that she had been “mean” and that Pamela caught her on a bad day. They call each other Plato and Socrates but I’m not sure that a great deal of learning is taking place. The correspondence starts again, still one-sided but Chris begins talking about her elderly mother’s plans to return to Greece, her attempts to help a Syrian family and her spurned offer of assistance to a friend. Chris seems to be an awkward and at times clumsy helper, with definite views on how things should be done but at times she cuts through Pamela’s wordiness with no-nonsense advice. It takes a long time until Chris divulges more of her own life.
Two middle-aged women, on different sides of the globe, with very different life experiences. Never catching sight of each other, never in each other’s space. There’s not a lot to work with here, but Johnson manages to develop characters who have an identity beyond the written word. It’s a curiously engaging book, despite little actually happening.The end, when it comes, was unexpected. Catching sight of the book the morning after I had finished it, I felt regretful that they had both moved beyond me.
My rating: 8.5/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.