The Lost Letter, Jillian Cantor: Book Review

lost letter jillian cantor book reviewRiverhead Books / Jillian Cantor
The Lost Letter Book Cover The Lost Letter
Jillian Cantor
Historical Fiction, Romance
Riverhead Books
June 13, 2017

Austria, 1938.
Kristoff is a young apprentice to a master Jewish stamp engraver. When his teacher disappears during Kristallnacht, Kristoff is forced to engrave stamps for the Germans, and simultaneously works alongside Elena, his beloved teacher's fiery daughter, and with the Austrian resistance to send underground messages and forge papers. As he falls for Elena amidst the brutal chaos of war, Kristoff must find a way to save her, and himself.

Los Angeles, 1989.
Katie Nelson is going through a divorce and while cleaning out her house and life in the aftermath, she comes across the stamp collection of her father, who recently went into a nursing home. When an appraiser, Benjamin, discovers an unusual World War II-era Austrian stamp placed on an old love letter as he goes through her dad's collection, Katie and Benjamin are sent on a journey together that will uncover a story of passion and tragedy spanning decades and continents, behind the just fallen Berlin Wall.

Earlier this year I discovered a new found love for historical fiction novels. I have always enjoyed history, but surprisingly enough, had never picked up a historical fiction novel before Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle. After reading Shattuck’s novel back in April, I entered a giveaway for The Lost Letter on a whim. Shortly afterward, I was pleased to find out that I would be receiving an advance copy of the World War II era historical fiction novel by Jillian Cantor.

I honestly thought that The Women in the Castle spoiled me. It was so well-written and Shattuck managed to capture World War II in an entirely new way. Initially, the synopsis for The Lost Letter reminded me of The Women in the Castle. Not only did it deal with past and present, but Cantor was presenting history in a new way. While I expected The Lost Letter to be intriguing, I never expected for it to become my favorite novel of the year so far.

This is an ARC review of Jillian Cantor’s The Lost Letter, which releases June 13, 2017.
*Special thanks to Riverhead Books for allowing us to review ahead of publication.

Never would I have imagined that a novel about stamps would be one of my favorite novels of the year. Something seemingly innocent, and, some could argue, somewhat out of date with today’s current technology, never struck me as something that could hold such a powerful message. In one short novel, my appreciation for the power that simple objects hold has expanded tenfold. Who knew that a single stamp had the power to tell an extremely powerful and beautiful story?

From the very beginning, Cantor pulls the reader into World War II era Austria. Opening with a brief scene in which a woman is carrying letters to the post office, it’s obvious that something is wrong. There are fear and desperation in her actions that lead up to her presumed capture by gunpoint.

Transition to Los Angeles. In 1989, Katie is taking her father’s stamp collection to a man who can look over its contents and appraise its worth. Little does she know, however, that her life is about to change. Just one small stamp will send her on a journey to uncover history, as she finds herself in search of the recipient of a love letter that was never delivered, hidden among her father’s massive collection.

Told through a dual timeline that focuses on two very different, yet increasingly related characters, Cantor’s writing style is beautifully evocative. Her incredible skill as a writer shines as the story slowly unfolds, traversing different time periods and perspectives along the way. Every other chapter provides a different look at the story, in a way that slowly allows the reader to come to terms with the mystery surrounding a single lost letter.

As Katie begins to uncover bits and pieces about an irregular World War II era Austrian stamp of St. Stephen’s Cathedral that bears a small imprint of a flower, an edelweiss, hidden within its steeple, she begins a journey to find the intended recipient of the letter, Fraulein Faber, which ends up being closer to home than she realizes. Along the way, we uncover more about Katie through a first person point of view, in which we watch her begin to find a purpose in life after going through a painful and rather unexpected divorce.

Every other chapter, Cantor transports the reader to Austria through the eyes of Kristoff, an artist and aspiring stamp engraver under Frederick Faber. Told from the third person perspective, we are given all of the details about the small Jewish family that has become Kristoff’s only home. From lessons on the tools used to engrave stamps, to the use of stamps to convey messages, thoughts, and feelings, Cantor makes a tiny image represent a different lifetime in stunning detail.

As we learn more about the small family, the pain and tragedy of World War II strike down as the Faber’s home crumbles under the eventual German takeover of Austria under Hitler’s regime. Chapter by chapter, the story of Kristoff’s romantic relationship with Elena Faber comes to light in a shattering tale of love and loss. Past and present become perfectly entwined as Katie uncovers a lead that points toward the whereabouts of Kristoff and Elena in a completely unexpected and beautiful love story.

All the while, the reader is transfixed by a love story brewing in the present as Katie begins to find herself again through the story of the Fabers. As Katie learns more about the past, she becomes closer to Benjamin, the man that started the journey by bringing an unusual stamp to her attention.

Told through various perspectives and across different periods in history, The Lost Letter is an absolute must-read for fans of historical fiction or romance. Not only will you learn something new about the resistance movement that took place using nothing but stamps and letters during World War II, but you will also be treated to an incredibly sweet love story that will have you thinking about the novel for quite some time. Trust me when I say that you need to read this book – it’s absolutely wonderful. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Cantor’s work, although I’m not quite sure that anything can live up to the overwhelming beauty that is the relationship between Kristoff and Elena.

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Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.