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Four Letter Word: Original Love Letters

by Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter, eds.

While the traditional handwritten love letter may have lost its preeminence in the electronic age, editors Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter have attempted to resurrect the art of literary lovemaking with this anthology.

Each of the 41 contributing authors was asked to submit a fictional letter addressed to a particular object of affection, be it a lover, a former lover, a parent, or even a planet. The resulting collection of brief epistles is striking in its variety and creativity, though a number of the pieces more closely resemble short stories than love letters. From Joseph Boyden’s poignant story of a husband destroyed by the loss of his wife in Hurricane Katrina to Sam Lipsyte’s bawdy comedy of a chimpanzee’s declarations to his beloved female primatologist, this anthology runs the gamut of love, loss, lust, and longing.

The collection features contributions from Canadian literary heavyweights such as Leonard Cohen, M.G. Vassanji, and Douglas Coupland. Of particular note is Margaret Atwood’s tale of a time-travelling scribe who pens romantic entreaties on behalf of the poetically clumsy in a Bloor Street bar. Atwood’s witty prose and the androgynous hero/heroine resonate nicely with tones of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Happily, the anthology isn’t limited to Canada’s best-known writers; international authors such as Greek expat Panos Karnezis, English-American Neil Gaiman, and the aforementioned Lipsyte (an American) offer refreshing and absorbing experiments on the love letter.

A handful of letters read like assignments from a creative writing workshop – the content a little too contrived, the prose slightly stiff. Thankfully, none of the contributors resorted to the flowery or maudlin, so the anthology may not satisfy those anticipating a how-to lesson in wooing from celebrated authors. However, the majority of stories put the reader in the position of voyeur, one who silently observes the intimate connections between the lover and the beloved.