The Printed Letter Bookshop
The Printed Letter Bookshop is a pleasant enough story that trips over its own execution and runs afoul of its narrative choices but manages to avoid total failure by anchoring itself in the warmth of its main characters – three women from different worlds who come together to manage a bookstore after a tragic death. But only one of them has a truly compelling story to tell.
Madeline Cullen’s family returns to Eagle Valley, Illinois, for the first time in nearly twenty years to attend the funeral of Madeline ‘Maddie’ Cullen Carter, Madeline’s aunt and a victim of cancer. Madeline soon finds herself reckoning with her choice to stay estranged from Maddie in support of her father, whose poor management of Maddie’s money drove a wedge between brother, sister and niece.
Janet Harrison’s awareness of Madeline’s existence boils down to one memory – Madeline denying Maddie’s repeated and increasingly more urgent requests for a visit. Janet watched Maddie die and is therefore less than charitable about Madeline’s self-enforced distance. After all, Maddie was Janet’s best friend and the most important person in her life and Maddie gave Janet a part-time job, a friend to lean on, and a way to avoid her problems. And Janet has plenty of those – she’s fifty-four and a flirty, drunken town pariah thanks to an affair that destroyed her marriage and estranged her from her adult children.
Claire Durand watches the funeral with mildly judgmental fascination – it’s not sentimental or personal enough for her taste. A year ago she was new to Eagle Valley and wandered into the Printed Letter Bookshop looking for something sunny to get her mind off of the mundane nature of her life. She walked away their only full-time employee, the account-balancing practical one to Maddie’s pie-in-the-sky dreamer. Claire’s husband’s travel-heavy job, her constant clashes with her daughter and her always-busy son leave Claire feeling forgotten and straining for a new purpose as grand as the lives lived between the covers of her beloved classic novels.
Busy Madeline is a high powered Chicago lawyer who’s close to making partner and has no time for the small-town seaside life. When she learns that, along with Maddie’s personal effects, she’s inherited the financially struggling store, she plans on selling the it and getting on with her life. But then she’s unanimously turned down for partnership in favor of a more creative colleague – who happens to be her ex-lover. Realizing she’ll never be able to break the firm’s glass ceiling, Madeline tenders her resignation and heads back to Eagle Valley, hoping to use her off time to sell the shop.
Claire and Janet are both relieved that the PLBS will continue to operate in some form, but are wary of Madeline’s intentions. All three women have been presented a curated reading list from Maddie, a gesture that’s supposed to help them overcome their current problems and brace for life without her. It gets them talking, but ultimately it’s the business that forces these three very different women to interact. As they try to embrace change and face down their goals – Claire to forge an identity outside her family, Janet to get a grip on her reckless life, and Madeline to make the Printed Letter Bookshop a success while figuring out if her lawyer ex-boyfriend or an engaged landscaper holds the key to her heart – only time will tell if they’ll be successful.
I’ll dispense with the positives first, and fortunately, there are more than a few to be had. The Printed Letter Bookshop has a perfect grasp on how small bookshops in small towns operate and Reay has a very nice eye for small details and sculpting word pictures. Generally, the book handles its characters’ faith with good grace, though sometimes Maddie feels a bit too preachy because the author forgot to give her any flaws (see below). Janet’s arc is very compelling and intense, and is what kept me reading – in fact, I wish her story had been given a solo book – and Madeline’s romantic problems are at least fleetingly interesting. Claire’s story is brought down by the irritating behavior of her daughter, but I suppose that just means Reay has written a true to life teen.
But there are also a number of flaws to be found between The Printed Letter Bookshop’s covers. The book’s point of view is split three ways between Madeline, Janet and Claire, with Madeline and Janet’s chapters written in first person while Claire’s are delivered in the third – and when the reason for this was revealed, I groaned, finding it a tad too twee and distracting.
There are also problems with the characterization and plot. I don’t understand why Madeline would be so blindly loyal to her father’s vow to ostracize Maddie from their lives when they aren’t very close and his cold, unemotional desire for order and distance defines their relationship. And then there’s Maddie, who feels superhumanly good and whose flawlessness made her almost unlikeably perfect; I desperately wanted her to feel real and I expected the book to even her out her portrayal as it went along but alas, time and the page count only turned her into an even bigger paragon of virtue.
One of the more unforgivable details involves those Maddie-assigned reading lists – lists the author never divulges to her readers, choosing to keep them private because they’re ‘personal love letters between Maddie and the characters’. This is less cute than frustrating – how are we supposed to believe in these women reshaping their lives around their reading lists if we don’t know what’s on them? And then there’s a third act downbeat that – after establishing lavishly how much the store means to the community and how much respect people had for Maddie’s work – I couldn’t entirely buy, though I suppose shitty people will be shitty, especially if they’re young and reckless.
On the whole – and thanks to the epic and truly memorable character arc given to Janet – The Printed Letter Workshop isn’t the worst book you’ll ever read, but it isn’t the best either.