Dear Mr. Knightley
By: Katherine Reay
Format/Source: Paperback; won from a book giveaway contest hosted by Dreaming Under the Same Moon
Samantha Moore survived years of darkness in the foster care system by hiding behind her favorite characters in literature, even adopting their very words. Her fictional friends give her an identity, albeit a borrowed one. But most importantly, they protect her from revealing her true self and encountering more pain.
After college, Samantha receives an extraordinary opportunity. The anonymous “Mr. Knightley” offers her a full scholarship to earn her graduate degree at the prestigious Medill School of Journalism. The sole condition is that Sam write to Mr. Knightley regularly to keep him apprised of her progress.
As Sam’s true identity begins to reveal itself through her letters, her heart begins to soften to those around her—a damaged teenager and fellow inhabitant of Grace House, her classmates at Medill, and, most powerfully, successful novelist Alex Powell. But just as Sam finally begins to trust, she learns that Alex has secrets of his own—secrets that, for better or for worse, make it impossible for Sam to hide behind either her characters or her letters.
I first found out about this novel from Rissi @ Dreaming Under the Same Moon. Jane Austen spin-offs, sequels, adaptations and so forth (at least in the written medium) can be a bit of a hit or miss with me depending but I thought the premise of this novel sounded really interesting. Some people last week remarked that the premise sounded familiar, from Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs; I’ve never read it but I could see what they meant. Anyway, I won a copy of this novel through a giveaway contest held at Dreaming Under the Same Moon and given that it was exam week, I decided to read it. Contain some spoilers ahead!
Dear Mr. Knightley is told in an epistolary format, which is quite fitting as not only does the reader learn more about Samantha this way through her perspective but it touches also on a dying art that reflects Samantha’s interests and the sort of books she reads. The plot is pretty straight forward, following Samantha as she relays to they mysterious Mr. Knightley about her life and her experiences in the programme and the people in her life.
I thought Samantha was a very interesting character who clearly had a lot of issues to resolve at the start of the novel. I found myself very sympathetic to her plight, especially as some of the problems she had were issues that I can relate to on some level: failure, the desire to do her best, wanting to connect with other people but at the same time watching out for herself. She contemplates a lot about the way life works, how things don’t always turn out as planned and how people and relationships may not always be what they seem, thoughts that many people can relate to or have even contemplated about on occasion. The reader learns a lot about her childhood over the course of the novel and how she came to rely on her books as a place of solace, reassurance and protection. It’s easy to retreat when things get tough and everything seems as though they’re out to get you but it’s interesting to see how Sam slowly overcomes her problems and her own personal feelings of failure and despair and become stronger, more courageous in facing the outside world and reaching out to those around her. I also appreciate how gradual these changes are and how everything contributes to her change.
Can I also mention how hardcore a reader Sam is? I love many of the books she’s mentioned and referenced but to actually quote a good many of them? Impressive. The only things that end up gettng quoted on some regular basis/depending on the situation are lines from The Lord of the Rings (usually the movie) and Doctor Who =P But I digress.
On the subject of literature and the books mentioned throughout this novel, while I enjoyed reading the way that Samantha related to the various characters–from Edmond Dantes to Elizabeth Bennet–one thing that was sort of getting on my nerves after a while was how Fanny Price was portrayed here/referred to (poor girl can never catch a break). On the one hand, I get why she was referred to the way she is within the context of the story–Fanny is not a pro-active compared to other Austen or literary characters, she can come across as weak (well, especially given her physical frailties) and she doesn’t fight back. But at the same time her portrayal in this novels feels like a reinforcement of those ideas when there’s so much more to her character, a strength that can be easily overlooked. But this commentary is more for Mansfield Park (commentary) than here but I felt like I had to defend her character somehow =P
While I appreciate Sam’s character development over the course of the novel, I did find myself wondering a little bit about other aspects of her character (for lack of a better explanation). Save for a few kind people, she had a horrible childhood–to the point of spending a few months out on the streets–and I’m surprised that, for the most part, she’s still relatively intact. As in, she’s not outwardly rude or nasty to other people like some of the other characters she came across in this novel who came from similar experiences; she’s not rough on the edges. She can be socially awkward and very distant but she’s strangely self-contained, which sometimes felt a little inconsistent. Or maybe because of her books she’s managed to cope and internalise these harsh experiences so deep that a passer-byer wouldn’t think twice that she’s went through so much (like Josh and his friends). But she’s also very naive; at times I can understand that she’s clueless because she’s spent so much time reading her books and not interacting and other times the cluelessness seemed a little too unbelievable for a woman her age. By the way, there was one tidbit that Samantha revealed towards the end that was quite unexpected; it leaves you hanging but I appreciated the surprise.
I also appreciated reading Samantha’s struggle in the programme as I can relate with some of her struggles not only adapting but also having to really work within the parametres of a programme writing-wise. It’s not easy, especially if you’re used to writing a particular way, and sometimes it feels as though your end product doesn’t sound like you but in the end you learn a lot about language and writing and the way you communicate ideas to other people (as Samantha discovered). I thought it was a nice reflection on writing and finding your voice.
What I really enjoyed most about this novel was Samantha and Alex’s story and their scenes together. I enjoyed how witty and relaxed their banter can be, how with each scene they grew closer and closer and opened up to each other (Samantha more so than Alex). Alex was a very interesting character with his own secrets and enigmatic in his own right but he also comes across as decent and smart. Both clearly have a lot of issues to face and resolve and this novel highlights how these two damaged people were able to find each other, heal and rely on each other over.
Other secondary characters in this novel were very interesting and added to the various stories that were also happening throughout, from the Muirs (they are so nice and awesome and the way they dote and interact with both Samantha and Alex are just so cute and left me all :)) to Ashley and Kyle. I wished we had a few more scenes between Samantha and Father John as I thought he was an interesting character who is clearly looking out for her; at first I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of him deciding what programme Samantha should be enrolled in (I would have been as livid as Samantha). Oh, and I knew there was something fishy about Josh from the get-go. Boo to him 🙁
Overall, I enjoyed reading Dear Mr. Knightley, I couldn’t quite put the novel down once I really got into the story because I wanted to know what was going to happen to Samantha and Alex next. While I more or less figured out the big reveal at the end, I thought the character journey was really interesting and how Samantha and Alex’s story progressed. Edit: Wow, I didn’t expect to write that much for this review *blushes*