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.