Curling up with a good book must surely be one of life’s simplest pleasures and one that, as a busy mum-of-two, I unfortunately don’t get to do as often as I would like, sigh! So, when I do find a fabulous new book and can retreat to the sofa for a few moments of uninterrupted escapism, I want to be transported to a different place; want to spend time in somebody else’s life. OK, I also want to avoid the ironing, but it’s mainly about the books!
This blog, ‘Off The Shelf’, is all about finding that time to enjoy a great book. I will be reading and reviewing my favourites and sharing an insight into the author behind the words. I hope you will discover some new favourite authors and books along the way.
‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’ by Jojo Moyes (published by Hodder & Stoughton) is an absolute treat of a book, from the beautiful cover to the very last word. If I had to describe the book as an occasion, it would be Afternoon Tea, enjoyed with the finest china and the most exquisite cakes in a beautiful, art deco hotel in Monaco.
The story, which spans over 50 years, starts with Ellie, a journalist who is having an affair with a married man and struggling with her career. She has just uncovered an intriguing archive of old documents and letters from the 1960s. From here, we go back in time to meet the main character, Jennifer Stirling, who wakes up in hospital after being in a car crash and is unable to remember anything about her life; her husband, her home, anything. It’s a terrifying prospect.
Sensing that something is missing in her life and ill-at-ease around her husband Laurence, some distant memories begin to stir when Jennifer finds a love letter hidden in a book. It is signed simply ‘B’. And so begins her search for the truth about her life.
Set between the Riviera and London society scene of the 1960s and also in modern-day London, the plot moves backwards and forwards in time, twisting and turning between Ellie’s life and Jennifer Stirling’s life, before and after the car crash.
I loved the character of Jennifer Stirling, finding her very reminiscent of Grace Kelly; oozing style and sophistication of a bygone era. Ellie is also a character I am sure we can all relate to; struggling at work and picking apart cryptic text messages to try and decipher the true meaning behind the abbreviated words.
The book has some brilliantly disguised plot twists (which I didn’t see coming and am certainly not going to reveal here). I also loved the whole premise of this book; the wonderfully romantic, almost-forgotten notion of handwritten letters between lovers.
For hopeless romantics and lovers of 1960’s Riviera chic, this book is a must. Satisfying on every level, I was sorry to come to the end (and yes, I shed a tear!) I am now looking forward to enjoying Jojo’s previous novels and cannot wait to see what brilliance she will craft next.
I spoke to Jojo about her life as a writer.
I was born in London and lived there on and off until I was thirty. I now live near a town called Saffron Walden on a farm in the middle of nowhere. I have three children, 13, 10 and 6 and we have two horses, two dogs and one cat. Before I was a writer I was a journalist for ten years, and before that my jobs included brochure writer for club 18-30 and typer of braille bank statements for blind people.
That’s a lot of pets! So, when did you start writing – and why?
I’ve always written – as a child I filled piles of exercise books with stories about incredibly brave girls with ponies doing death-defying things. But I took it up professionally when I was working nights at The Independent and needed something useful to do with my days. It was that or shopping, and I didn’t have the money for shopping…
I know that feeling! So, when was your first novel published and how many have been published since?
‘Sheltering Rain’ was published in 2001, and seven have been published since. My ninth book, ‘Me Before You’, will be out in January.
So, tell us what is the most glamorous aspect of life as a writer?
Probably the launch parties, award ceremonies and lunches in nice restaurants with editors and agents. Believe me, when you spend the vast majority of your time alone in a room in your pyjama bottoms wrestling with things that only exist in your head, those events are really welcome!
Hmm, the pyjama bit I’m not so sure about, the launch parties and award ceremonies I could definitely do! Your novels are all set in different periods of history, ‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’ being set partly in the 1960s and partly in modern times. What is it about history, and this period of history, which inspires you and how do you do your research?
I love that period of the late fifties and early sixties. I’ve written several books – Foreign Fruit, The Peacock Emporium and now Last Letter partly based in that time. I like it because you still have a lot of the restraint and inhibition of earlier times, which is so useful for fuelling plot, and really good for setting a love affair. Relationships are far more interesting for what stands between the two people, and there was so much stopping people getting together back then. It was also a time when the world teetered on the edge of a change – towards greater personal freedom and a more permissive society – and yet there were plenty of people who would take years to get there.
I do my research a number of ways, but one of the most important is visiting the British Newspaper Library at Colindale. There I go through newspapers of the era and study them – the advertisements, the preoccupations, the stories. I bring home loads of copies and pin them all over my office; you find that the names, the language, and the feel of the era seeps into what you are writing. I love the television series Mad Men, which seems to illustrate a lot of these issues beautifully and subtly. It would be my dream to write for that show.
You heard it here first! So, tough question, but which three words would best describe your writing style?
Oh gosh. Um – emotional, heartfelt, and I’d really hope for intelligent. I try to write characters who are properly complex and I trust the readers to work out some things for themselves.
As a writer, you are obviously an avid reader. Other than your own novels, which book would you love to have written?
I think the first book I really envied was ‘Behind The Scenes at the Museum’, by Kate Atkinson. A perfect example of a great plot, clevery told, a bunch of really original characters, and more than anything else the most amazing tone. More recently I also loved ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett.
Also two of my favourites. Now, here’s a tricky question. If you could choose a celebrity to play any of the characters in your latest novel, which celebrity and which character would it be?
It must be wonderful to see people reading your books on the tube or at the airport. Have you ever spotted anyone famous reading your novels?
I haven’t spotted anyone, but Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Prejudice, The King’s Speech etc) read both ‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’ and ‘Silver Bay’ and that made me SO happy. I love her work. Clare Balding read ‘The Horse Dancer’ and said lovely things about it. She also seems like a lovely person (and I’m not just saying that because she liked the book!)
And finally, because I am impatient and want a bit of a scoop, can you tell us anything about your next novel? Please?!
I’m just finishing the proofs for ‘Me Before You’. I can’t say too much about it, because it is truly different, but it’s a love story about a woman who falls in love with a man who has decided he wants to die, and what happens when she tries to change his mind. It’s a real weepie – possibly even more than my previous books – but it also has a lot of humour in it, which is a new thing for me. Every now and then you write a book which just writes itself, and this was one of those books for me. I’m quite nervous about it, as it is a controversial subject, but the people who have read it so far have been passionate about it, so I”m keeping my fingers crossed…
Thank you to Jojo for these fascinating insights into her life and her work. You can say hi to Jojo on Twitter @jojomoyes or visit her website www.jojomoyes.com
‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’ is available now in paperback, priced £7.99.