The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor
Riverhead Books, 2017. Hardcover, 336 pages.
The Lost Letter depicts the story of a stamp and how it ties together multiple families over decades and across two continents. The novel opens with the “modern” storyline set in 1989 through the early 1990s. Katie has been forced to place her father in an Alzheimer’s care unit because his memory is failing despite his upper-middle age. Ted was an avid stamp collector throughout his life and made Katie promise to care for his beloved collection. Katie opts to take the collection to be appraised and that is how she meets Benjamin, another stamp collector. As Benjamin goes through the collection her finds an unopened letter with an unusual stamp. Together Katie and Benjamin search for the story behind the stamp.
The historic storyline covers 1938-1939 in Austria, the place and time the stamp hails from. Kristoff is an aspiring artist and an orphan who is offered a job as a stamp engraver’s apprentice. Though raised Catholic, Kristoff feels that he has finally found a home among the Jewish Farber family. However, life in the Farber household will change after Kristallnacht. Frederick, who was in town, is considered missing. His wife is arrested and taken to a work camp. Daughter Miriam is taken away on a Kindertransport. Older daughter Elena was supposed to join her sister but elected to remain behind to fight. Together Kristoff and Elena find ways to use the stamps Kristoff engraves and both of their engraving skills to help the resistance until one night when their world again crashed down around them.
The two storylines in The Lost Letter will interconnect in unexpected ways throughout the book, many unexpected until a few paragraphs before they occur, if then. Like in her previous novels, Margot and The Hours Count, Cantor has painted a vivid, descriptive story centered around key points in history, with a Jewish connection. For those with relatives with Alzheimer’s or dementia, the 1989 storyline will likely hit a bit too close to home as Katie interacts with her father. And Cantor does a wonderful job keeping readers wondering about the relationship between Katie and Benjamin. The added touch of Katie’s grandmother and her delight in the fall of the Berlin Wall also shows through as does her hopes for her granddaughter. In the historic storyline, readers will gather many aspects of how the people would have felt as Hitler took over their country, including the very real fears experienced. There is a building tension throughout and a corresponding resistance. And the love between Kristoff and Elena is both tender and passionate at the same time, even when Elena first tries to deny the truth of her love. Overall, a very enjoyable, heartfelt novel.
Have you read Cantor’s other novels? If so, what did you think? Do you know anything about using stamps to support the resistance efforts during World War II? If so, please share as I know I and others who read this book will desire to learn more.
My review is based on a digital advanced reader copy provided through the First To Read program. I am very late in posting this as I somehow overlooked the file until recently. I regret that as this was a wonderful novel!