|Which Brings Me to You is a romance novel for the hip, ironic crowd, or as one of the narrators describes the type of person she immediately recognizes as a kindred soul, “we hate sentimentality and yet we’re deeply sentimental.” Steve Almond, best known for his confectionary memoir Candyfreak and Julianna Baggott, who has published novels, children’s books and poetry anthologies, alternate the male and female point of view in this modern love story that even a jaded Generation Y reader will take to heart.
John and Jane meet at a wedding, and after trading witty and cynical remarks they quickly find themselves making out in a coat closet. But before the point of no return, John suddenly stops, claiming that he likes Jane too much to make this just another one-night stand. The two decide to return to their respective homes (New York City for John, Philadelphia for Jane) and write to each other. But these are to be no ordinary “how are you doing?” letters. They vow to leave no secret unrevealed as they confess the details and “unload the memories” of their love lives. Once they share their regrets, they’ll meet again to determine if their initial attraction can survive knowing the honest truth about their pasts.
John goes first, telling Jane the story of his adoring high school girlfriend from an alcoholic family, and after Jane gets past an initial bout of shyness, she joins in with the tale of her own adolescent love, a bad boy with a Mohawk. Their sagas of heartbreak, betrayal, sexual experimentation and even death are brutally honest. Even though they promised confession, not seduction, neither John nor Jane can resist inserting a bit of flirtation into their correspondence. But by the time they’re finally ready to meet again in person, they’re unsure if their new knowledge of each other has made them more likely to live happily ever after, or less. Is there such a thing as too much truth?
I am predisposed to like most epistolary novels, as my husband and I conducted a courtship through the good old U.S. mail more than 20 years ago. But I wouldn’t have devoured Which Brings Me to You in a single sitting if it weren’t well-written and engaging. Having the couple write real letters, not just e-mails or instant messages with emoticons and LOLs, gives the book a touch of old-fashioned literary elegance that is in sharp contrast to its modern attitude. Steve Almond’s John is smart-assed but vulnerable, and funny as hell (his frantic, doomed attempt to retrieve a letter he wrote while drunk is the comic highlight of the book), while Juliana Baggott’s Jane is quirky, witty and not quite as tough as she thinks she is. Her sections are more poetic and sometimes harder to parse than Almond’s but no less effective. Her description of the ill-fated relationship with a man whose main attraction is his complete normalcy is particularly poignant and believable.
There is nothing more romantic to me than two wounded but determined people connecting through their own words and finding a shelter from the storm of modern life’s craziness. The insights John and Jane have gained about themselves and each other give the reader hope that they have the chance to build something special together, even if it won’t be easy. It’s even sweeter for the fact that the two urban cynics would roll their eyes at the thought of a sappy, happy ending.
One warning: while there are not many explicit sex scenes in the novel, there is a lot of frank talk about the act and plenty of colorful language, as well as an allusion to a homosexual relationship. I certainly wouldn’t want my 15 year old daughter to read the book. But I highly recommend it to any adults who, somewhere deep down in their world-weary hearts, still believe in love.