There is something beyond romantic in the idea of a husband writing one letter a week to his wife from the time they got married to the day they died. The notion of ‘romantic’ is fleeting, but marriage is not and a commitment of writing that letter every Wednesday until the day you died requires dedication (maybe even devotion). The Wednesday Letters is built around this incredible commitment to marriage and it makes its point at the very first chapter.
In the first chapter, we are introduced to Jack and Laurel Cooper. The Coopers run a bed and breakfast place in Shenandoah Valley. In their 39 years of marriage, they had three children—Matthew, Malcolm and Sam. Then one morning, one of the inns’ patrons found Jack and Laurel in each other’s arms, lifeless.
The first few chapters introduce us to the Cooper Siblings who must face the surprising death of their parents, and like most family stories, it begins with a homecoming. The homecoming is filled with anxiety and with constant reference to Malcolm, the evident Black Sheep of the family. The fear in Malcolm’s return from Brazil is shrouded with issues discussed in uncertain ways by all the other characters in the story. And it is this that draws the reader to pursue the next few chapters of The Wednesday Letters.
The Wednesday Letters isn’t a long and difficult read. While the themes that emerge from the story are tightly tied to the story I will attempt to talk about them without bringing in the spoilers.
Secrets and Lies
Malcolm is at the center of these secrets and lies. His life, as he knows it isn’t what it is. The bulk of the novel focuses on this. The secrets unravel as the letters do. The fact that the letters are discovered in boxes by the siblings – there is no chronology in the way events unfold. The reader is caught on wondering about the events in the same way the Cooper children are. The revelations are equally surprising to the children and to the reader.
The secrets this story deals with aren’t easy-to-swallow secrets. It’s the sort of revelation that made Malcolm question who he was. Personally, when secrets from one’s childhood come tumbling down 20 years later it leaves you confused and angry. It’s heavy and the feeling isn’t limited to the emotion, it can be felt physiologically.
The story begins with a powerful idea on marriage, a couple married for 39 years dying in each other’s arms. This devotion is further revealed as we discover that in those 39 years Jack Cooper wrote to his wife every Wednesday without fail. The perfect marriage however had its crisis, as the children would discover in one of the letters.
I don’t know much about marriage. I am not married and my parents’ marriage was finished when I was seven. I used to have this grim image of marriage, but as I grow up I come to terms that sometimes people just have to fight for their marriage. In my Marriage and Family Therapy class, we are presented with the idea of “Conscious Marriage.” Everyone gets drunk in the romance and marry drunk. Conscious Marriage strips it all down to the basics: It’s hard, its got drama and love alone won’t solve things. As the older priest tells Edward Norton, a young priest in Keeping the Faith, making a commitment isn’t a onetime thing. It’s about making the same choice over and over again. It’s standing by that choice. So in the case of marriage, its choosing to live up to the vows again and again.
But that’s me talking psychology and movies. I really don’t’ know what it takes, but in the Wednesday Letters relationships and commitment aren’t easy, but possible.
Jack Cooper’s last letter to Laurel (an excerpt):
“Laurel, our marriage has not been perfect. It has been trying. It has tested us more than we could have known on that day we agreed to this journey. But it has been honorable. I have been upheld by you. And you, you have done that and more. You have kept your promises. Thank you for believing in a greater plan before I did.”
Forgiveness and Faith
I wasn’t suppose to lump forgiveness and faith together, however Wright presents the two concepts together. It is undeniable that this book had a religious angle to it. Ministers, faith and religion play a giant part in the story. Faith motivates a lot of the character’s choices whether in flirting with a Brazilian girl, holding the funeral and forgiving individuals. It was the device used to bring resolution to a difficult revelation.
This book isn’t for everyone. For those who appreciate books like Chicken Soup for the Soul and movies that have a religious/faith angle this book may be a hit. While 3/4 of the book was interesting, I felt that the way the issues were resolved felt forced. I understand what faith can do to the believer, but I felt the book could have explored Malcolm’s pain more. There was space to delve into the inner turmoil. I felt the book was written too much like a movie that it sped through the conflict resolution with an expectation that the reader would get it by mere facial expression (in this case a few pages).
As a reader I appreciate human complexity in literature. While we can give forgiveness and deal with the issues thrown at us, when a life-changing truth is thrown at you after 30 years it takes time to process. It might take a few months, but not days. However, as a mere reader I felt the magic want of forgiveness and faith was thrown too early and too easily as a plot device. It is the latter part of the novel that threw me off. It was too in-your-face on the faith part. I would have appreciated subtlety and true human struggle as opposed to a neatly knotted bow. Wright built this credible character in Malcolm. He wasn’t great with dealing with problems or very emotional events. He was a black sheep. The way he resolved everything was too out of character. I wanted a few more pages of turmoil before the actual forgiveness. If this were the case, it would have felt more authentic.
The Wednesday Letters is not a bad book. It was written, I believe, with a particular audience in mind. It is effective in delivering its message. It can be inspirational. However, to those who are not fans of faith/religious elements in stories or to those who like a complex struggle for resolution this might not suit their palate.
The book actually has a dedicated website that allows its readers to engage in various exercises with their book clubs (see here).
The author, Jason F. Wright, is an American author, political blogger and pundit. He lives in Woodstock, Virginia the very place where the novel is set. He has four children with his wife Kodi Erekson and a Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). His novel, Wednesday Letters, reached #6 on the New York Times Bestseller list.
The Wednesday Letters is one of those books I keep avoiding when I go to the bookstore. I feel like this book has too much drama in it. After reading your beautiful, honest, straight-from-the-heart (and possibly close-to-home?) review, I might give it a chance. As I was reading your review, I suddenly remembered the movie P.S. I Love You. Not on the same page, but the idea is semi-kinda-sorta the same.
I will be on the lookout for this in the local library. =)
Its not heavily dramatic. It’s an easy read.
Oh yeah, i’ve seen P.S I love you. This was is less elegant i guess since its the children sifting through the boxes of letters.
If you ever get to read it let me know what you think.
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Jason has a sequel coming out this fall called The Wedding Letters. Look for it September 27th!