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Dear Mr. Knightley

Dear Mr. Knightley - Katherine Reay Just...no.

The premise of this book is good: a sensitive, intelligent girl who was abused by her parents and betrayed by child protection services finds shelter in books and hides her real self behind literary characters.

That idea is fine. The execution is an epic fail.

Dear Mr. Knightley is also based on Daddy Longlegs, the 1912 novel by Jean Webster. If you haven't read that, I highly recommend it. It's aged so well that my 16-year-old son, who sports a Mohawk, teaches LEGO engineering classes, and composes electronic dance music, read it and laughed his head off. It's just that good.

Daddy Longlegs is the story of an orphan who's given a scholarship to college. The only condition is, she has to write letters regularly to her benefactor, whom she regularly yells at in print for never writing back to her. The story is terrific and the ending makes you want to hug the whole world. It's my new favorite book ever, and I only read it because another reviewer mentioned that Dear Mr. Knightley is based on it.

So I'm grateful to Dear for introducing me to that older, terrific story. But this book still bites.

Daddy may not have been particularly realistic in its premise, but the reader doesn't care. The narrator wins you over immediately, and not in some mushy-gushy way – she's sharp as a tack.

Transporting that premise to the present day feels weird. The narrator, Sam Moore, is designed to annoy – oh, sorry, I mean she has lessons to learn and lots of growing to do!

Whatever. She's irritating.

Plus Dear is trying to be a combination of magic-wonderfulness and gritty realism, and it fails on both counts.

So what's a reader left with?



Well, the author comes up with some refreshingly new and original character types! Like a kindly old priest who never loses his temper and is very helpful! And a kindly old couple who have everything they could ever want except children of their own to love! And a seemingly tough high school coach with a heart of gold! And a black teenager who uses the word "ain't" a lot!

Okay, no.

Well...how about a narrator who's in her twenties and has apparently never even heard of sex, and wouldn't be the slightest bit interested in it if she had? That sounds awesome, right?

Yeah, it really isn't. It turns out that any direct, lewd, crude description of sex couldn't possibly be as creepy as the tiptoeing around it this book does. Put it to you this way: Sam is such a freakin' delicate little flower of a thing, she can't even bring herself to say the phrase "sports bra" when describing exactly what attire she needs to go running. As in, it's important to the plot that she's suddenly shopping for top-to-toe coverage for an impulse ten-mile run she's about to take. She can mention needing "shoes." "Shorts," fine. And then there's just, you know, "everything else" she needs.

Really? For heaven's sake, somebody tell this author it's okay to talk about sports bras. Like, in front of your grandma and everything. Even if they're there to support "the girls."

Some people have pointed out that this is a Christian novel. Weirdly, I would have felt better if it had been more so. If Sam were a character being pulled one way by secular "anything goes" ideas and another by the Christians trying to show her the way to real happiness, that would at least have made sense. As it is, Sam has only a vague idea of what she believes so far as religion goes; but she's kissed for the first time in her twenties, and apparently that's the farthest she ever feels like going.

No. Just no. You can have a character who has trust issues too damaging to allow her to feel safe being intimate with someone. You can have a character with strong ideas about sex being Marriage Only territory, and then put her in a setting where physical attraction and moral ideals have to duke it out. But to have a woman in her twenties just kind of floating around thinking, "Wow, kissing is kind of fun! That guy's kind of cute! Wait...he wants what now? Me to 'spend the night'? Well...I guess maybe...if that's what he wants...but no, I think that's sort of supposed to be not something I should do..."


Add some lousy scene-setting and a lot of atrocious dialogue, and you've got yourself a crowd-pleaser! If that crowd is people who've never read a good book before and don't know what one's supposed to be like!

Also: what is up with that last chapter being in the third-person, when the rest of the book is first-person narrative via letters? Is this supposed to be the novelist character telling things? Why? Why? Why would it be in third-person? Does that mean he's just making stuff up now? Did the whole ending never even happen?

That would be fine with me. The ending of Daddy Longlegs works. Borrowing it for a contemporary novel is creepy with a side of stalker.

I'm so done with this book. Thank heaven.

Save yourself. Read Daddy Longlegs. Read real Austen novels. Do NOT read Dear Mr. Knightley.