by Katherine Reay
So I actually really enjoy books that are letters when they are done well. Someone told me that this was a remake of the 1912 delight Daddy Long-Legs, so I thought I would give it a whirl.
In Dear Mr. Knightley, Samantha (of course known as Sam… is there any Samantha who goes by Samantha?) has grown up in various foster care homes, and spent the last several years of her legal childhood living in a sort of group home run presumably by Catholics, since the fellow in charge is Father John, called Grace House. Sam is offered a scholarship of sorts of a prestigious journalist school in Chicago. In exchange for having her tuition paid, Sam must write monthly letters to her unknown benefactor (“Mr. Knightley”) telling of her progress.
So this book was a solid 3/5 for me. It literally stirred zero strong feelings in me, to the point where I wasn’t even going to bother reviewing it. A fine read, not a waste of my time, but not something I want to recommend or anti-recommend to anyone, either. But I enjoyed it enough to want to give Reay another chance, so I got on GoodReads to see if she had written anything else. While there, I made the mistake of getting sucked into other people’s reviews of this book. To my surprise, it apparently stirs very strong feelings in everyone else, because everyone either gave this book a 1 or a 5, which I found intriguing. As I read through the reviews, I began to get annoyed, because people disliked this book for the wrong reasons, and so, here I am, writing a review for a book that I apparently liked more than I thought because the negative reviews made me feel rather defensive.
Here’s the deal: this concept doesn’t really work as a modern adaptation. I don’t know how else to say it. Where Daddy Long-Legs felt natural and real, Dear Mr. Knightley felt stilted and forced. The whole book would have worked a thousand times better if Sam had just been writing in her journal, to the point where I just pretended she was writing in her journal so I could enjoy the book more.
But most of the complaints in the negative reviews centered around the fact that Sam didn’t sleep with her boyfriend, and that really began to tick me off. Sam ends up living in an apartment over a garage. The family who owned said apartment are super nice and rather conservative and they have younger children, and Sam decides that she really doesn’t want her (new) boyfriend staying the night because she doesn’t want to set a bad example for the kids. As the story progresses, Sam just simply isn’t read to get in bed with this guy. She really likes him, but she has a lot of trust issues (see: Sam’s tragic back story growing up in foster homes) and just isn’t ready. All the reviews saying that this was “completely unrealistic” and that Sam just needed to “loosen up” and no 23-year-old girl could be so naive as to not know what her boyfriend wanted (which, by the way, misses the whole point – Sam did know what he wanted, and she just didn’t want to give it to him), really, really, really annoyed me. Just because you are dating someone does not mean you are obligated to sleep with him/her. I’m quite tired of the message being the opposite, that dating = sex and that if you aren’t having sex, then you aren’t dating right. My gosh. Sam’s reasons behind her decision to not sleep with her boyfriend were sound and logical, and even if they weren’t, it’s her choice and she can do what she wants. I think it’s funny that the liberals are quite insistent that everyone do whatever they want to do, unless, of course, they don’t want to do whatever it is the liberals are doing. Sheesh.
Anyway. The other big rant about this book, read in multiple reviews, also illustrated that people missed the entire point of the story. Sam has been abused and neglected her entire life. She discovered Pride and Prejudice at a younger age, and books became her escape. She loves the classics and has an excellent memory. When she gets nervous or doesn’t know what to say, she quotes. It’s her way of putting up a barrier, making sure people don’t get too close, keeping her life hidden. Is it annoying? Yes, that’s the point. Sam isn’t real when she’s quoting; she’s hiding. She spends the entire book learning to grow out of that shell, learning to face her past and let it make her stronger, instead of hiding it and letting it cripple her.
While I didn’t love this book, I appreciated Sam’s growth as a person, and her yearning for normalcy.
Actually, my biggest – by far and away – beef with this book? It’s an obvious retelling of Daddy Long-Legs, yet that book is not mentioned a single time. I literally read through everything – dedication, acknowledgements, endnotes, you name it, looking for some acknowledgement of Jean Webster’s classic story, and it wasn’t there. That really burned me, actually, to the point of thinking about writing Reay a letter. I mean seriously?
This is a fine fluff book, not a total waste of time, and I wouldn’t mind reading something by Reay in the future (if she can avoid plagiarism next time), but overall I would say time would be better spent reading Jean Webster’s Daddy Long-Legs and, even better, its sequel (and my favorite), Dear Enemy.