Book review: Old plot, new spin

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The relationship depicted by Deborah McKinlay is not entirely convincing.Cheerful read not entirely satisfying as a love story, writes Nicky Pellegrino.

'That Part Was True' by Deborah McKinlay
'That Part Was True' by Deborah McKinlay

The love story has to be one of the more over-subscribed genres, with endless novels and movies devoted to the different permutations of what goes on when boy meets girl.

So what happens if writers start running out of fresh angles? They put new spin on an old story, as British author Deborah McKinlay has for her second novel, That Part Was True (Orion).

This is the tale of two people - one in Britain and one in the United States - who get to know each other through letters and emails, discovering mutual interests and passions as their communications cross the ocean. Fans of Helene Hanff's much-loved 84 Charing Cross Rd will hear loud bells ringing but it's more than 40 years since that book was published and, although McKinlay certainly owes it a debt, she does take her version of the boy-writes-girl story to different places.

That Part Was True begins with Eve Petworth penning a fan letter to best-selling American author Jackson Cooper. Eve knows nothing about Jack. She has no idea that his wife has just dumped him for another woman or that he's hit a wall with his writing.

Jack sends a postcard back to Eve, who lives alone in the English countryside and seems, on the face of it, as different from him as can be. Long divorced, solitary and struggling with anxiety, she has been dominated by a ghastly mother and is now being bossed around by her daughter.

Soon it becomes clear that Jack and Eve share an enthusiasm for cooking. They have other things in common too; both are middle-aged, both struggling. Their correspondence becomes a comforting ritual. They swap recipes and, as the tone turns more personal, Jack suggests they meet up in Paris. But Eve has a secret. And Jack has hooked up with another woman. So will it ever happen?

Though this is an epistolary novel, the letters aren't the real meat of it and the relationship between Jack and Eve isn't completely convincing. Both 84 Charing Cross Rd and the similarly epistolary Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society were set in an era before Facebook, Skype and cheap long-distance phone calls, so it was plausible that a friendship might form and deepen purely through cards and letters. For some reason Eve and Jack stick to writing to one another, despite the many other modern forms of communication available, and even then most of their exchanges are brief so there is no solid sense of a bond forming. To me, their connection seems more of a device for McKinlay to be able to explore their two lives and the worlds she wants to write about. And that she does quite beautifully, turning out a thoughtful, heartwarming novel about two very different people at turning points in their lives and how they get through them.

That Part Was True is a cheerful, relaxing read even if it's not entirely satisfying as a love story. Or entirely original.

- Herald on Sunday

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