Second-Hand Love

Sometimes when a book is so good, I think about leaving a note inside of it when I return it to the library. In my imagination my note would be all sophisticated and intelligent, pointing out the themes and underlying messages. But in reality, it would probably read: Hi Fellow Book Friend! This book was good. That’s all I got.

I think I need professional help.

In Cath Crowley’s Words in Deep Blue, Rachel returns to her hometown after having been away for three years. Her younger brother drowned almost a year ago and she’s spent the last year being haunted and hunted by sadness. She’s failed her senior year of high school, her mother’s grief is pushing her further and further away, and Rachel’s grandmother can see that to move on Rachel will need to get away from the place her brother Cal died.

So Rachel goes home and has to deal with Henry, her best friend since birth.  But what was once friendship for Rachel changed before their freshman year of high school. She realized she was in love with Henry. She wrote him a letter about how she felt and hid it in Henry’s favorite T.S. Eliot book of poetry. Then she moved to another town. Henry never mentioned reading the letter and Rachel figured he didn’t feel the same way. So, folding up on herself in humiliation and regret, Rachel stops speaking to Henry for three years.

Henry, meanwhile, is passionate about two things: his family’s second hand bookstore (Howling Books) and his girlfriend Amy. He graduated high school and blew his savings to travel the world with her. That is, until Amy sits him down and tells him that while she still loves him, she’s also interested in someone else. I didn’t know that was allowed. Huh. You learn something new every day. So Henry does what every 18 year old boy has done since the beginning of time: vows to win her back and make her fall in love with him.

The family’s bookstore isn’t doing too well, not with online book companies and the rise of e-readers. Nobody seems to want to browse in bookstores anymore. Howling Books has been in business for twenty years. Henry, his sister George, and their father are very protective of their love for books and the bookstore itself. Henry’s parents are divorced and their mother is trying to convince them to sell the building. The company that wants to buy it plans to bull-doze the building to make way for condominiums.

What’s so special about this secondhand bookstore? It has a section called the Letter Library where people can leave letters for friends or for a love interest.  Rachel had put her letter in a book in the Letter Library before moving away.  And now that she’s back, she has a job at the bookstore cataloging all of the letters in the Letter Library (yes, there are that many letters hidden between the pages of all those books).

Thinking that Henry’s just too embarrassed to mention her love letter from three years ago, Rachel decides to start over with him. They’ve been beyond close almost since birth and they’ve both missed each other terribly in the three years she was gone. Rachel doesn’t tell anyone about Cal’s death. Everybody thinks she’s just taking a break before college and living with her aunt for the summer. She doesn’t tell them she couldn’t concentrate during her senior year and couldn’t see the point of high school and flunked out.

Rachel hates Amy and the feeling is mutual. Amy, a beautiful redhead, is the type of girl who will latch onto the next thing that comes along if it’s shiny enough. But she keeps letting Henry think there’s hope for the two of them. Rachel bites her tongue about the situation, relieved that she doesn’t have any feelings of love for Henry anymore and they can go back to being best friends.

But isn’t that what we all say when confronted with unrequited love? Of course Rachel still loves him. Duh. So they spend a few weeks getting back into their friendship and coming up with ways for Henry to win Amy back. But Rachel finds that dealing with Cal’s death isn’t getting any easier and she especially wants to share her grief with her best friend.

All seems lost when Amy decides Henry’s shiny enough to take back. But does Henry finally see that the girl he loves is the same one he grew up with?

Told in alternating voices and letters from the Letter Library, Words in Deep Blue is not just about getting over grief but also about learning how to live with it while still doing the work of everyday living. It’s about a family of bookworms learning that letting go might not be a bad idea. And, maybe most importantly, it’s a book about love in all its forms and incarnations. I shied away from this book at first because of the romance angle but found that it was my kind of book: difficult love, love that makes your heart into a zombie (yes, the book could have used some real zombies too but that’s just me being me).

As Barry Gibb once sang (before the falsetto years) “Let there be love.”

And there was.

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