I have hesitated to compose my review because there is no way I can do this book justice! As soon as I finished reading it, I realized I had to REread it immediately (to gain Mr. Knightley's perspective of Samantha's letters, rather than just her own). And I did...and was even more impressed with Sam's self-disclosure and honesty. Hard to believe that this was Katherine Reay's first published book - it's a jewel.
This is a book that will make you ache for every kid shuttled through the foster care system. But what about those kids as they age out? Where do they go, and what scars do they carry into adulthood? Samantha Moore was first neglected, then abused by her parents. The only stability she knew came from a few compassionate foster parents and Father John, the director of Grace House in Chicago, where she has lived for eight years. After several disastrous attempts at living on her own, Sam returns to Grace House at age 23 to pursue graduate studies in journalism. Father John has been instrumental in helping her get a grant to cover her tuition, but it comes with strings - the head of the foundation providing this opportunity wants her to keep in touch and apprise them of her progress through regular journal-style letters. Knowing her affinity for fiction in general and Jane Austen in particular, he signs his request, "Mr. Knightley," and thus the title of this delicious book.
Sam would rather study/write fiction than objective journalism, but at this point she doesn't have much control. Father John wisely knows that for far too long Sam has escaped into her books. He counsels her: "I want the best for you, and with every fiber of my being, I am convinced that 'the best' is not more fiction, but finding you way around in the real world and its people." This is the premise of the book - Sam learning about herself and other people, through her rocky semesters at grad school.
I won't spoil this read for you by saying too much about Sam's friends, except that they are lively and each contributes to her eventual wholeness. Some parts of the book are gritty and will make you reach for the kleenex; others will have you smiling and whispering "YES!" But one friend deserves special mention because he, too, is looking for wholeness and happiness - Sam's favorite living author, Alex Powell.
They bump into each other on campus (he is also a Northwestern graduate) while he is researching his next novel, and develop a friendship at first based on their common love of books. They struggle with how much to reveal of themselves to each other (her foster history, his broken heart from a failed engagement), as they move from acquaintances to friends to love. I was touched when Alex shares his loss of peripheral vision in one eye - a neat metaphor of the blindness old injuries inflict on our hearts, and Sam has plenty of those.
At the same time the Sam is recognizing her feelings for Alex, she is becoming more and more open in her letters with the anonymous "Mr. Knightley" - her failing grades, her conflicts over how much of her real self she reveals to her friends, her fears of the future. And then suddenly, a burst appendix sends her back to Grace House to recover from surgery. There she finally faces her past and finds the voice her journalism mentor demands. She writes a paper describing her experiences in the foster care system with white-hot honesty and energy. Her professor thinks enough of it to encourage publication, and suddenly there is no hiding who Sam really is from her friends.
But strangely, she doesn't want to share this article with the friend who matters most. She continues to hide this huge chunk of her life from Alex, and he in turn, hides by returning to New York and his writing. It looks like this is the end of a blossoming love story - even mutual friends cannot make them see the mistake they are making - until a car accident brings them together again. But this isn't the climax...you'll have to read it for yourself to find out what Paul Harvey used to call "the rest of the story!"
I wish I could give this book more than five stars. It is one I heartily recommend, especially if you have an interest in good English literature. You'll love the quotes sprinkled throughout the book as you fall in love with Sam.
I loved this book. At first I liked the format because the chapters were short. Then I was there in the story and could feel what Sam felt and be where she was. I was sorry to leave and know I will read this and visit again.
I read this book because the CBD website highlighted this author and I was in need of a good book to read on vacation. I am SO glad I took the chance. This book is so fun to read, moves quickly, is a nice kind of funny, and I really loved the plot and characters. I LOVE that the author weaves the God into the story, but not in a way that is unnatural or would prevent a non-Christian to feel preached to.
This book is so unique. Setting - *sometime between 2010-2014. Samantha has lived in a group home and has the opportunity to move out as a young adult woman, or accept a grant to further her education, but she will have to continue in the group home.
She opts for the first choice, but the job doesn't last long. She is forced to move back to the group home, and reapplies for the grant. Understandably the foundation is hesitant, and rather than give her the money outright, they require regular updates via penned correspondence to ensure she will not change her mind again. To ensure anonymity and no potential attachment, she is instructed to address the letters to Mr. George Knightly, who will in turn read them, but not respond.
She agrees to the terms, but finds great therapy in the letter writing and spills forth all sorts of personal information.
Rather than chapters in this book, there are dates. The date each letter is written. I really enjoyed it and read it cover to cover in one day.
Sam does a lot of growing in the course of the story. Her head is filled with literary quotes, which she randomly shares with people who usually do not know what she is talking about. That was fun, because if you enjoy classic literature like Jane Austen, you will appreciate those moments. I don't usually read modern stories, so when she referenced PBSs Downton Abbey and Sherlock, well, I actually shouted, "Yes!" in delight. I was unsure of the *exact time setting until then.
The sub-story of Kyle, a messed up, angry teenager in the group home, was a strong and moving one. Getting to know him through Sam's eyes and experiences with him was interesting.
I especially enjoyed the strong influence and love of Professor and Mrs. Muir. What they did for Sam moved me to tears (but, no spoilers).
I did not care for her first boyfriend, Josh. But the friendship she develops with Alex, a famous author was a treasure to see develop.
Yesterday in church, our pastor shared how "One wrong turn on the road can change your day, but one wrong turn in life can affect you for years. It is important to think ahead and consider the consequences." Some of these characters did that, while others did not. There were many "consequences" throughout this book. Truly interesting.
This is Katherine Reay's debut novel. I can't wait to read what she comes up with next!
Things that are included: *Discussion Questions at the end. *Q&A with Author
Dear Mr. Knightley has found a place among my favorite books. I was swept away by the characters and the emotions, and simply had to keep reading to see what might happen next. So much for the errands I intended to get done that day....
As I'm writing this review several days after reading the book, the characters are still with me, vivid and alive like cherished friends. And I'm tempted to dive right back into the book and read it again. In fact, I already have read a few of my favorite scenes a second (and third) time. The emotional resonance of those scenes is truly powerful. I feel for the characters, their vulnerabilities and fears, and I want to see them find love, acceptance, and happiness. Sam desperately wants to experience "normal" and I want that for her too. It's what drives her to grow and change and to confront her fears.
The format of the book is unusual in that it consists almost entirely of the letters Sam writes to her benefactor, Mr. Knightley. Those letters are detailed accounts of the things that matter in her life, told in first person narrative format. At times, it was easy to get swept up in the action, description, and dialogue Sam records, and forget that I was reading a letter. And yet, the really great thing about the use of letters was getting to see Sam's perspective on events more or less as they were happening rather than her perspective looking back from the conclusion of the story. It gives a sense of immediacy, and allows the reader to see how her thinking changes as the story progresses.
The faith element in this story shows up in the subtle influences of Christian characters Sam encounters who love and accept her, and show her a reason for hope. Given her fascination for literature, I loved the role her reading of CS Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader played in her growth and development, as well as her changing understanding of Scrooge in Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Framing her newfound understanding within a context of literature really seemed to make sense for her character, and provided a glimpse into the Christian worldview without becoming preachy. I think this is a story that could be enjoyed by Christians and non-Christians alike.
This is a must-read debut novel, particularly if you're into Jane Austen or romance or literary novels or loveably flawed characters trying to find their place in the world. Please, do yourself a favor and give this book a try. And if you enjoy reading it as much as I did, you'll be on the lookout for Katherine Reay's next book, Lizzy and Jane, due out in October.
Thank you to publisher Thomas Nelson for providing a complimentary copy for review purposes, via NetGalley. This is my own honest review.