Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book review: Letter from a Stranger, by Barbara Taylor Bradford


To read Barbara Taylor Bradford's Letter from a Stranger is to enter a world slightly elevated from the one most of us know.  Her stunningly attractive characters sit at the top of their careers; their wealth lets them live in large, impeccably designed homes; their devoted servants mother them with affection and whip up their favorite meals at a moment's notice.  They fall in love at an instant with a passionate coup de foudre. They also own property in gorgeous locales, in this case Connecticut's peaceful Litchfield Hills and historic, exotic Istanbul.

Despite the many plot contrivances and the fact that so much seems to just click into place for these people, this last aspect is sufficient reason to read Bradford's dual-period novel, which is an enticing advertisement for visiting the multi-ethnic city on the Bosphorus.

In 2004, Justine Nolan, an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, gets the shock of her life when she opens a letter indicating that her beloved grandmother, Gabriele, is still alive.  Ten years earlier, Justine's mother, Deborah, had told her and her twin brother Richard that their Gran had been killed in a plane crash.  They were devastated (yet apparently didn't question it further, seek out news clippings, etc).

The mysterious letter has no return address.  Its postmark propels Justine on a searching journey to Istanbul, where Gabriele had once run a successful import-export business.  There, in a picture-perfect pink yali (villa) on the Asian side of the ancient river, Justine discovers more than she bargained for: not only the reasons for her mother's cruel estrangement from Gabriele, but the tragic past that Gabriele had kept hidden for sixty years.  She also finds love.

Less than a quarter of the novel takes place in historic times, and these segments are fragmented and choppily written by design, but they sit at the story's center.  Gabri's secrets aren't that hard to guess, and they explain, as Justine learns, why she always sought to surround herself with beautiful things.  Istanbul is the star here, and the descriptions of its historic Byzantine architecture, local cuisine (the cheese-and-herb-filled pastry triangles known as börek), luxurious gardens, and scenes of the river at nightfall make for a refreshing, almost intoxicating experience:

"How beautiful the Bosphorus looked at this hour.  The sun was setting and the deep blue waters of the straits rippled with rafts of crimson, pink, and gold, and the sky was aflame along the rim of the far horizon."

The characters have a tendency to over-dramatize, and they themselves remark on the coincidental flukes that seem to happen in their privileged lives – almost as many times as they call Deborah a flake. Even her two children believe that Deborah, who fortunately remains absent for most of the novel, is a nasty piece of work; it seems impossible that she could get any worse, but somehow she does. Yet the underlying story carries a power of its own, gliding readers along smoothly until the obligatory happy ending. Bring it to the beach, or read it in the garden under the summer sun.

Letter from a Stranger was published by St. Martin's Press in March at $27.99 / $31.99 Can (hardcover, 422pp).  In the UK, it's out in paperback from Harper at £7.99.

13 comments:

  1. I have never read Bradford before. I really should one day...

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  2. This was my first novel by her; she's very good at setting scenes and describing the lives of the affluent.

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  3. I read quite a few of her big famous sagas when I was a teenager and loved them, but I haven't read any of her books for years!

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  4. I own several of her big sagas, but often find it hard to get to older books with so many new ones on my plate!

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  5. I love books set in Istanbul, so I'd thought of reading this one. Thanks for the commentary. I've got Istanbul Passage lined up next, another historical set in that wonderful city.

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  6. Oh, I look forward to hearing more about Istanbul Passage. I hope to get a copy next week at BEA. This novel made me want to book a trip to Istanbul now.

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  7. I'm guessing you have a netgalley account. Istanbul Passage is available there if you don't snag one at BEA. I'll let you know when I post my review. I listened to an interview with the author--very smart and got me even more intrigued to read the book. I do love hearing what authors have to say, especially with an intelligent NPR interviewer!

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  8. Yes, I'm on NetGalley, and good to know there's an option if it doesn't work out at BEA. (I have a whole list of books to try to obtain there, and I prefer print, but inevitably there's something else going on at the time, I can't be in two places at once, etc). I've been meaning to read one of Kanon's novels for a while now.

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  9. I agree about print. It's always a challenge to put my thoughts together about a book to review it on my ereader unless I've remembered to leave bookmarks (getting better about that, old dog, new tricks...). With a paperback I can always quickly find all the spots I wanted to think about again, not so in the frustrating "search" tool. Although an ereader is ideal both for slipping in the purse for easy carrying and for staying flat when I'm reading and eating simultaneously. No more balancing the salt and pepper shakers on the edges to keep the book open. :) Technology has a few advantages, but only a few....

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  10. There's an author I haven't seen reviewed in a while (or with such grace). I am not certain whether I have read any of her books, but I do remember loving the mini-series based on A Woman Of Substance back in the eighties. Jenny Seagrove and Deborah Kerr really made an impression on me playing the principal character, Emma Harte. Perhaps I should give that novel a whirl. I haven't read a British saga in a while, and I think it got favourable reviews in its time.

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  11. @Judith - yes, that's it exactly. I can read novels on my Kindle but find it much harder to review them in that format. I know what you mean about the bookmark tool - I know how to do it but often forget, and I'd rather just write my notes down (though without a page number to go by, it's not as simple). I've been testing out an iPad, and that may be the perfect solution for reading and having a meal at the same time!

    @Danielle - thanks, I appreciate your comment! I haven't seen the related miniseries of Bradford's novels yet either, though should. I wonder if her earlier books were less coincidence-heavy than this one was. Your comment about British sagas rings true for this particular book also, even though the characters are American (Deborah is of English birth, but I don't think that explains everything). It reads British to some degree. I caught some terms that aren't typically American - advert for ad, for example.

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  12. I haven't had the chance to check out any of this author's work before - it sounds interesting, but I tend to stay away from books that shift time period - and I would also prefer it to be more historical that present period if I do. Thank you for the review.

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    1. Since this one takes place mostly in the present, you may want to try another book of hers first if you end up reading any - like A Woman of Substance or The Ravenscar Dynasty, in which the story behind the Wars of the Roses is recast as a glitzy Edwardian saga. I haven't read that one, but the premise interests me.

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