Dear Mr. Knightley
By Katherine Reay
Paperback, 327 pages
2013, Thomas Nelson
Sam is a 23-year-old orphan whose been given a grant to get a degree in journalism, as long as she writes frequent letters to her anonymous donor (who is not at all creepy for requesting this). Being decidedly bookish – so bookish in fact, that she often (awkwardly and pretentiously) quotes her favorite classic novels and does her best to embody their heroes and heroines – she finds this letter writing an easy task. Then she happens to randomly meet a very famous author, Alex Somethingorother, and somehow he finds her alluring (and endearingly awkward) and wants to see more of her. As she struggles through her journalism program and begins to fall in love with Alex, her letters become more like journal entries and she casually reveals her horrible past. Thus, she goes through some sort of transformation and discovers who she really is, or whatever.
If you’re too lazy to actually read my review (but, come on, just read it!) I think my blurb should give you a hint as to how I felt about this book.
I’m no spring chicken when it comes to reading Austen adaptations and inspirations and I’ve read more than a fair share of stinkers. When I bought this last February, I had high hopes. Too high, it would appear. Luckily for me, right before I sat down to start Dear Mr. Knightley, I happened upon a rather scathing Goodreads review. One could argue that this influenced my overall opinion of the book (but let’s save ourselves the time and give me some credit – I don’t just let the opinions of random strangers on the internet effect whether I love a book, just look at my review of Artemis compared to, like, everyone else!) but I like to think of it as a heads up.
While the review I encountered tore into this book and its heroine, I can’t muster that much energy. This book was too insipid to stoke my hatefire to anything more than the barest of coals. I don’t want to go into a big rant, but it might happen anyway.
Sam, at 23 has the maturity and outlook of someone who is 16. She had a job, got fired for something vague like, not having enough personality and I guess had to give up her apartment instead of finding another job (side note: she was also fired from a convenience store because it was held up and they “determined it was her fault” and I’m pretty sure that’s not possible unless she coordinated the robbery and tried to look innocent which she totally didn’t.) She goes back to her old orphanage and can stay while she’s at school. She hates having the help of the orphanage and grant money, yet doesn’t seem inclined to help herself in any way. She dreams of a “normal” life, so she’s going for this journalism degree, yet literally thinks night classes are pathetic. Hello, night classes are normal for people who work during the day!
She constantly wonders when “good” things will happen to her – because getting free money for a degree and living for free at an orphanage you grew up in where people know, like and support you isn’t good – and then doesn’t feel she deserves them when she does. Her letters are dull and mostly contain her obvious crush on Alex, her endless self-pity and her constant threats to quit the journalism program because she’s not good (because she can’t be bothered to try hard enough.)
Let’s also talk about her propensity to quote not only Austen, but other classic works of literature. She literally quotes the most random parts of books in real social situations, constantly weirding out her friends or ending conversations. How friggen pretentious can you be?! One example is when Sam finds out she has to take journalism instead of fiction to get the grant. She’s speaking to the priest at the orphanage and he feels this is the right choice for her and asks her to forgive him if he turns out to be wrong. She literally replies with: “My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost is lost forever.” Who does that? What even? Why not just own up to being a brat and say you’ll never forgive him (though even that’s a lie because she totally does)?
She also writes about how she acts like certain characters. When meeting new people at college and trying to make friends she writes: “I started out as Edmond Dantes and, when I noticed all their weird looks, morphed into a lighter, kinder Jane Bennet. Everyone likes Jane Bennet. Not today. It was humiliating.” I laughed at this, and I don’t think I was meant to, because I actually imagined her acting like these characters would in period films. No wonder she’s friendless.
Hmm. I seem to be tearing into this after all, though I can’t seem to summon any burning rage. But there are so many examples showcasing why this book is terrible. Sam has also, apparently, been through some major shit. She lived on the streets, hiding in sewers and eating from trash cans and constantly avoiding the cops and likely anyone who might want to rape her. We find this out almost halfway through the book and it just made me hate all her previous whining even more. I’m not saying you can’t have higher goals for yourself but if you literally lived in pipes full of shit, how is going back to an orphanage while you get a degree, for free, something to gripe about?
Ok, ok, one more example of why I hate Sam. One of her professors says: “You need to decide if you’re right for this program. You’re way behind where you should be by now.” Sam replies with: “What are you saying?”
Yeah so. This book was bad. None of the other characters are really worth talking about. Sam has some throwaway friends. Her love interest, Alex is the clichéd, down to earth, totally rich writer guy who can hang out in public and avoid the limelight because he’s never posted his author photo anywhere and I guess no one has ever bothered to dig into his life, despite his wild success. He naturally loves hanging out with Sam because they can dickishly quote classic novels back and forth at each other.
I will resist spoiling the ending for you (hit me up in the comments if you’d like me to though), but the twist is predictable and makes everything seem even more unlikely.
To sum it up, Sam is no Emma. She’s not confident, smart, funny, friendly, or even pushy. She’s in no way endearing or even relatable. I suppose you could argue Alex is like Knightley because he’s super rich and puts up with Sam’s immaturity and idiocy, but, that’s a stretch. It’s by no means a modern adaptation of Emma and I’d suggest you pass over this one if you’re a fan of Austen’s work or good books.