The Lost Letters of William Woolf, by Helen Cullen

It seems like we focus on the happily-ever-after so much that it seems unusual to think about what happens afterwards. The Lost Letters of William Woolf, by Helen Cullen, takes place about fourteen years after a happily-ever-after. William Woolf and his wife, Clare Carpenter, haven’t been happy for a while. They know they love each other, but they’ve lost the ability to show it and their knack for talking about things the way they used to. This book unspools over the course of their crisis. Do William and Clare love each other enough to survive their not-so-perfect marriage?

The hook for this book is William’s job. He works for the Dead Letter Depot for the Royal Mail in London. It’s up to him and his colleagues to figure out where to send lost letters, letters without addresses, and letters that are otherwise undeliverable. William has a special soft spot in his heart for the letters in the “Supernatural Department”—the letters addressed to god, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, among others. These letters might be the key to breaking his crippling writer’s block. Unfortunately, William has been blocked from publishing these letters in a book at the same time that Clare has pulled even further away from him. They used to be so in love. They could talk to each other about everything. They were perfect for each other and now both of them are baffled about how things went wrong. The crisis hits when Clare decides to leave William for a few days, to think, and William starts to find letters written by a woman named Winter to “My Great Love.” The letters cast a spell over William as Winter describes her longing for her dream man.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf follows a somewhat meandering path as William is divided over his desire to find Winter and his need to reconnect with his wife. At the heart of this dilemma is an important question for the husband and wife: what do they really want? William seems to want his life as it is: unambitious, comfortable, and safe. Clare is harder to pin down. She wants a better life, but it’s hard for her to articulate what that actually is. For a while, I sympathized with Clare. William is kind of a lump (even if he’s a lovable lump). She has to nag him and constantly remind him and he still fails to do things around their flat. There’s also the open wound of what happened with William’s first attempt to write a novel. But then the plot throws in a twist that made Clare (unfairly, I think) the villain of the piece. This book very much wants William to be the hero. He has some awareness of his failings, though he is never pushed to correct them as much as Clare has to.

In spite of this major problem (Clare has valid points about William!), I found myself enjoying The Lost Letters of William Woolf quite a lot. It had some of the same vibe of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in that it shares a strong literary flavor, features quirky characters that seem like people you might bump into, and makes a good effort at tackling the emotional life of a family that suddenly has to re-define itself. I think a lot of readers will enjoy this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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