The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant
The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is an epic, detailed novel relating a singular story set in two different times through the eyes of three unique characters. In 1951, college graduate Esther has been living as a middle-class housewife and mother when a vacation with her husband turns out to be a lure which deposits her in an isolated mental asylum/respite house led by a pioneering psychiatrist. Initially, she is deeply resentful regarding what has happened to her, but time has her falling in love with her beautiful island prison and one of its denizens. In 2018, marine biologist Rachel Parker is studying the effect of climate change on clams in the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast. Forced to seek shelter on one of the remote islands during a storm, she discovers a collection of hidden love letters and. moved by what she reads, determines to track down the intended recipient. Eve is taking care of her grandmother, who is convalescing at home from a broken hip, when Rachel contacts her regarding the letters. The two young women, looking for answers, set in motion a chain of events which threaten to bring decades old secrets to life.
The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is a tale of love and loss, family, and the complicated dance of human connectivity and societal expectations.
AAR staffers Shannon and Maggie are here to share their thoughts on this complex novel.
Maggie: I’m a big fan of dual timeline novels and stories revolving around old letters/diaries, so I was immediately drawn to this book. What drew you to review The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant?
Shannon: Like you, I love dual timeline novels, and I’m always on the lookout for stories that center around places and periods in history I’m not super familiar with. This particular book checked both those boxes for me, so I was really excited to give it a try.
Maggie: This is the fourth book Ms. Nunn has written but I have not read any of her others. Do you have any experience with her?
Shannon: This was my first experience with her work, but I plan on remedying that soon. I enjoyed many things about The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant so I’m curious to see what else she’s written.
Maggie: The setting here, of the Isles of Scilly, was new to me but I found myself drawn to the sparse, harsh location. The author communicated very well the rough, wild beauty of the place and managed to make the isolation of the region a selling point.
Shannon: I love when the setting of a story seems to come alive through the author’s words, and that’s exactly what happened here. I’ve never read anything set in the Scilly Islands before, but there was something so powerful about the way the author was able to bring their stark beauty to life on the page that drew me in pretty much from the beginning of the book. The sense of isolation certain characters felt was almost palpable, as was the love others had for the region.
Maggie: The story is told in third person, focusing on three particular viewpoints. The first of them we meet is Esther, who is presented to us as tired and apathetic. We learn she has suffered a deep loss and is at Little Embers House, the respite home/hospital, to hopefully make a recovery. I didn’t feel I ever got a good handle on Esther; I was told certain things about her, but I was never shown much of her character.
Shannon: Isn’t it amazing how we can read the same book but come away with completely opposite impressions of certain characters? I actually felt I knew Esther quite well. Some things were revealed more slowly than others, but I empathized with her obvious grief and her confusion once she understood that her husband had tricked her into getting treatment. As the story progressed, I learned more about who she was as a person, and I found myself quite invested in her fate.
Maggie: The second pivotal personage we meet is Rachel. I had a much stronger sense of her, perhaps because hers was such a forceful personality. She is very much in love with what she does, and I received a strong sense of purpose from her. I was also pleased with how self-aware she was – she understood that her inability to put down roots had something to do with moving around as a child and her own nature and accepted that about herself. What did you think of her?
Shannon: Rachel is definitely a more forceful character than Esther, but she has her own set of issues and vulnerabilities. She definitely loves her work, but she also uses it to keep people at arm’s length. She was a hard character to get to know in some ways, since she tried so hard to keep the focus strictly on her professional life. Still, I found her to be a relatable heroine, especially once she begins digging into Esther’s past.
Maggie: Eve seemed little more than a placeholder to me, meant to convey the story of her Gran.
Shannon: I completely agree about Eve’s role in the novel. We don’t learn much about her at all, aside from the fact that she loves her Gran and is hoping she’ll make a full recovery. I would have liked to see a bit more of who she is in her own right.
Maggie: I found the medical aspects of the novel deeply disturbing, most especially the idea that a bit of talk, rest and exercise can heal you. People who are seriously mentally ill with depression need a good deal more than that in order to resume their former lives. I also found the doctor’s behavior deeply unethical. What were your thoughts on this aspect of the novel?
Shannon: There’s so much about the history of mental health treatment that really disturbs me, and sadly, the types of treatment described here felt accurate (for the time) if not effective. People honestly believed rest, exercise, and fresh air could cure all sorts of illnesses. It’s sad to think of how many people were denied treatment for their mental health conditions because of society’s beliefs about the proper way to help them. As for the doctor and his ethics, I think he chose his profession for all the wrong reasons. He wanted to right the wrongs in his own past and this caused him to treat his patients in ways that were clearly not in their best interest. There’s more I could say about this aspect of the story, but that would veer dangerously close to spoiler territory.
Maggie: There are two romances here, a budding relationship between Rachel and Jonah and another between Esther and the mysterious R. I liked the modern-day portion and felt that Rachel and Jonah were making a genuine connection. I didn’t enjoy the historical romance at all. Did you like either of the romances?
Shannon: Rachel and Jonah were wonderful together, but the historical pairing didn’t work nearly as well for me. I understood how Esther could develop feelings for R, but the relationship wasn’t at all sustainable. With Rachel and Jonah, things were left on a hopeful note, giving readers the impression they were on the verge of allowing their relationship to deepen into something stronger than friendship, and I loved watching Rachel work out her feelings for Jonah even though she had avoided personal connection for most of her life.
Maggie: My overall response to the story is that it was fine but not stellar. For me it is a B- . What grade would you give it?
Shannon: I’m going a bit above you and giving it a solid B. It’s a book that has flaws, both in characterization and overall execution, but I found myself utterly engrossed in the story. The setting had a great deal to do with that as did my connection to Esther’s character. It’s a difficult read to be sure, but one I’m glad I made time for.