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I found a new character. Me. She’s bold and fairly feisty, with serious timidity issues at times. Every step she takes forward, she glances back and even retreats. But she’s got courage. I think she’ll make it…”
—Dear Mr. Knightley
As I mentioned in the “Never Have I Ever” Writing Tag, I’ve struggled with some insomnia over the last few weeks. I’m pretty sure most of it was psychological: I’ve had a lot on my mind and heaps of writing work on my plate.
I’m doing much better now, however, thanks to some new relaxation habits! Rather than going straight to bed at 9 o’clock and staring at the ceiling for three hours, I’ve begun praying the Office of Compline (the final daily service in The Book of Common Prayer) and then reading a novel for thirty minutes, nestled on the couch and wrapped in a quilt. By 10 o’clock, I’m nodding off. It certainly beats twiddling my thumbs till midnight.
For my first nighttime read I picked an oldie-but-goodie: Katherine Reay’s debut novel, Dear Mr. Knightley*. This one has been on my shelf for years, but it’s been a good four years since I last enjoyed it. In my opinion, this book becomes more meaningful over time–maybe because I see more of myself in the heroine. But it also nourished my recovering imagination…and even convicted me in a few places.
Samantha Moore has always hidden behind the words of others–namely, her favorite characters in literature. Now, she will learn to write her own story–by giving that story to a complete stranger.
—from the back cover of Dear Mr. Knightley
“Sam,” as you might imagine, is my kind of girl: a reader and aspiring writer who is very much in love with her fictional friends. (*cough*) But she’s also a former foster kid with deep emotional scars and paralyzing terrors: she keeps everyone at arm’s length, preferring the comfort and safety of her books and the characters therein to making herself vulnerable with anyone who might hurt her.
When an anonymous benefactor offers to put her through journalism school, however, Sam jumps at the chance…and the catch: if she wants the scholarship, she must maintain a regular correspondence with her mysterious supporter. He wishes to be addressed simply by the name “Mr. Knightley”–the name of one of Jane Austen’s most noble heroes–which not only delights our bookish Sam, but makes her feel safer. Mr. Knightley is a kind but faceless donor; there’s little risk in describing her studies–or her life–to him.
As Sam’s story unfolds, however, she finds herself confiding in Mr. Knightley more and more. As she tiptoes into friendship, struggles to find her creative voice, and even meets famous novelist Alex Powell, the correspondence becomes both cathartic and intimate.
Yet even Sam’s beloved characters can’t give her everything she needs to face the demons of her past. They are important to her story, and she is inspired by them. But she can’t hide behind them–not forever. One day she’ll have to take her first steps as herself. One day, she’ll have to meet Mr. Knightley.
I can relate to Sam’s fear of vulnerability–which is probably why I blinked back tears a few times. It’s tempting to retreat into yourself, your work, your hobbit-hole–and yes, even your favorite stories–when you’ve been badly burned.
But as Sam’s story reminds me, pain is not the final word. I see so much of myself and my own insecurities in Sam, but I also see so many of the people I know and love in characters like Professor and Mrs. Muir, Father John, and Ashley. Like Sam, I am loved, seen, and known–and I take great joy and comfort in that.
I also take great comfort in the reminder that our favorite stories should inspire us to be brave, honest, noble, and true–but if we use them to detach ourselves from our reality, we’re missing the whole point. Not only that, but if we spend so much of our time fashioning ourselves into the image of this or that character, we won’t give ourselves room to grow into the people we were created to be.
Dear Mr. Knightley* is an epistolary novel: the entire story (minus the epilogue) is told through Sam’s letters to her enigmatic patron. Some of the harsh realities of modern society definitely play a part in the story, but they’re dealt with discreetly; you won’t have to skip anything raunchy or violent.
I appreciate, too, that not all the emotional loose ends are tied up at the end. Sam gets a happy ending worthy of Elizabeth Bennet, but the reader knows she and Alex will still have some important issues to work through. Personally, I find this a huge breath of fresh air…especially in Christian fiction where things tend to be wrapped up in implausibly tidy, sugar-sweet packages. Life isn’t always like that, as Dear Mr. Knightley proves in a way that is both hopeful and realistic.