I never start a first-person-narrated romance with any confidence that I will enjoy it. I’m old-ish and old-fashioned and with the exception of Jane Eyre want my romances to be thirdly-centred. While I didn’t love Clayborn’s mannered “Chance of a Lifetime” series, I did enjoy it and thought her a thoughtful romance writer, trying too-hard to bring a self-conscious emotional complexity to the romance novel (while not sacrificing the HEA). Like the third-person, I prefer a more definitive HEA, but I wasn’t dissatisfied with Love Lettering‘s ending, thanks to its nod to Austen’s Persuasion.
As a non-fan of planners and pens and gel-vs-ink aficionados, I wasn’t keen on Love Lettering‘s premise: calligraphic heroine Meg Mackworth, with some kind of vague woo-woo sense, weaves the word M-I-S-T-A-K-E into hero Reid Sutherland’s wedding program. One year and a broken engagement later, Reid appears at Meg’s sometimes-paperie-employer, Cecelia’s, with an accusatory tone and the said wedding program. As a genius-IQ, Wall Street quantitative analyst, Reid sure can read a pattern where others might not and he wants to know how Meg knew his engagement would end.
What ensued was confusing to me: I think Meg, who has made QUITE a name for herself thanks to the originality of her work, is creatively blocked at a crucial moment in her career: an upcoming pitch to a national planner-and-paper company. In conversation with Reid, who turns out to hate NYC as much as Meg loves it, Meg asks Reid to join her in an exploration of NYC-signage in an attempt to unblock her creativity and unhate his NYC-hates-it. Reid agrees and they embark on a courtship of sorts, exploring NYC on foot, meeting in different neighbourhoods, making sustenance stops at small, inexpensive, but delicious neighbourhood eateries.
I was never really sure why Meg proposed this scheme, or why Reid agreed, but I did enjoy their journeying. Once the unlikely, vague premise was set up, I thought Clayborn created a wonderful balance of engaging setting, a peripatetic movement to her narrative that echoed its perfect pacing, coupled with hey, one of my faves in romance, food descriptions, and a see-saw of banter-attraction and genuinely serious conversation between hero and heroine. Clayborn also gave Meg an inner voice that was funny at times; at others, insecure and frightened, yet never made her less than likeable. Add potent physical attraction and the alternating of hero-heroine-heroine’s-inner-voice was engaging and delightful.
The novel’s rhythm of texting, meeting, talking, observing, playing word and signage games, sometimes breaking into a fight (especially because Love Lettering is an opposites-attract romance) lulled me into a this-is-a-quiet-psychological-romance state. Then, Clayborn saved the best for last and ratcheted the tension to sky-high with a dramatic last quarter, without a Big Mis, or a terrible emotionally-wrenching rift between hero and heroine. Above all, one of the most wonderful things about Clayborn’s romance is that its main theme is care: care for the other, and friends play as great a part in the heroine’s well-being as does a lover-boyfriend, care for oneself, care with what one brings to one’s work.
If Love Lettering ends with a Persuasion-homage, it opens with Pride and Prejudice. Reid is pissed off and stiff; Meg is cringy embarrassed and blubbery out-there, also judgy-judgy. Like my beloved P & P, Meg is FUNNY at first-sight of Reid (and she remembers him with this fiancée, Avery, quite vividly too):
Last year, he’d been wearing what other people call “business casual” and what I’d privately call “weekend-stick-up-your-ass”: tan chinos pressed so sharply they’d looked starched, white collared shirt under a slim cut, expensive-looking navyblue V-neck sweater.
“Maybe, I think, his life is pretty different now, too. But then he says, “Good evening,” which I guess means he’s still got the stick up his ass. Who says Good evening? Your grandad, that’s who.
“Of course in the face of a human-shaped piece of granite I find myself struggling to muster the cheerful informality that’s always made me such a hit in here, that had lifted my low spirits throughout today’s shift. Ridiculously, I can only think of phrases that seem straight out of Jane Austen. Are you in need of assistance, sir? What do you require this evening? Which of our parchment-like wares appeals most to you?
Reid may be stiff, slow-to-smile, and excessively-polite, but he’s also kind, caring, honest, and moral. Meg may be blurting-my-feelings out there, but she too has emotional wounds to hide and has to learn to be honest about what she needs. (Reid’s direct honesty helps with that.) And the delight of the novel? How Meg peels away Reid’s stiff-chino layers, hubba to the love scenes too, to find the man worthy of her love and loyalty as he is of her open heart and humour. This is only a tiny sampling of all the ways Love Lettering won me over and will remain as one of the best romances I’ve read this year. With Miss Austen, who appreciates all the nods, we say Love Lettering is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering is published by Kensington Books. It was released in December 2019 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Kensington Books, via Netgalley.