The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor: Review

Title: The Lost Letter

Author: Jillian Cantor

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Pages: 316; Price: Rs 1100

As I reached the end of this book, I realised somewhere along the way I had forgotten that it was inspired for true events, but ultimately a work of fiction. But it couldn’t be I told myself, it was so real and so very likely possible. I guess that’s what makes this an amazing and moving read. Wiping away pesky tears from my eyes that seemed to have sprung a leak, I sat back and thought, what an incredible story.  

Jillian Cantor’s The Lost Letter is a tale of discovery; discovery of tragedy, discovery of loss, discovery of love and discovery of hope. It stirs something within, and wrings out notions of happily ever after as a thing of the past- it gives new meaning to the word unconditional love. The story spans two different times, and tells two tales which could be as disconnected as they are tied together. Held together by a World War II stamp on an unopened letter, the book paints a picture of how love may be lost and torn apart, but it can never be forgotten or dampened with time.

Present day of the book is set in Los Angeles in 1989, where Katie Nelson is a writer trying to recoup from the havoc her divorce has created and piece together a new life for herself. She’s trying to cope with her father’s ailing memory and the sense of losing the man he is, when comes across his treasured stamp collection, for which he dragged her to garage sales and old shops through her childhood hunting for the ‘gem’ for his collection. Anticipating that it has some monetary value, she takes it to a young appraiser, Benjamin, and they uncover an unusual stamp on what they realise is an undelivered love letter. Unable to resist, they embark on a quest which reveals the value of the stamps as being much more than money can ever be. They unravel some aching truths, and learn of devastating sadness that forces them to re-calibrate their outlook to life.

In Nazi-occupied Austria, the story of the harsh reality of war comes to light. Kristoff is a young apprentice of the Jewish stamp engraver, Frederick Faber, who falls in love with his fiery daughter, Elena. But alas, things get complicated fast, as the family is torn apart as the Germans start picking off Jews, their quiet lives are ripped to shreds and a series of trying situations cloaked in fear and danger engulf them. Elena works side by side with Kristoff, to resist the occupation with their engraving skills and subtle sensibilities as he is forced to engrave stamps for the Führer. But things don’t go as they had planned and Kristoff and Elena lose each other in the chaos of war and hate.

A beautiful and flawless edelweiss flower tethers this story together with a tender touch. Just as I am every time I watch Sound of Music, the strength of the edelweiss amazes me without fail. Jillian quotes Berthold Auerbach who says of the flower, “the possession of one is a proof of unusual daring.” And as it was portrayed in the 1965 classic musical film, the edelweiss in the book as well stands for resistance and courage – for fighting for what you believe in, be it freedom of love.

To preserve the beauty of this tale, I do not want to delve too much on what happens, but I urge you to go ahead and pick it up and journey with Katie and Benjamin as they uncover loss and pain and revel in love and hope. This I hope will be a tale that sees its way to the silver screen someday, for this story of the unwavering faith and power of love must be recreated in film.

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