Since reality has been laced with so many inexplicable plot twists and an overabundance of conflict that has me seriously wondering about the Author’s ability to wrap things up in a satisfying, happily-ever-after way, I’ve turned to fiction for solace and distraction.
Like many others, I’ve been comfort-reading old favorites, predominately Golden Age mysteries where truth prevails, the bad guys always get their just desserts, and everyone is smartly dressed. Much as I’ve enjoyed the distraction, I do have an appalling number of unread books waiting for me to give them a chance. As a result, I recently implemented an every-other process where I alternate between re-reading a comfortable favorite and randomly picking a new book from one of the teetering stacks of unread books leaning against the walls of my library (virtual and physical).
Last week, Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering was one of the new books that finally made it off the pile and into my hands. Technically I guess you could say it made it “into my ears” since I listened to the audio-version of the book. I had heard good things about the story and remembered positive reviews from some of the 8Ladies, so I was looking forward to an enjoyable story, which it both was and wasn’t.
Perhaps I should explain.
The story, for those who aren’t familiar with it is told from the perspective of the main character, Meg, a twenty-something who has built a successful career as a hand-letterer in New York. The author did a wonderful job giving the story a sweeping sensual feel, making the descriptions of the lettering and signs almost visible to the reader. As the story starts, Meg has a goal–she is working on a portfolio of work for a job she is trying to get. In the past, she designed wedding-related items (which apparently included hidden messages on occasion), but she has now moved on to lettering high-end custom planners. She is also in the midst of a bit of a creative block.
So far, so good.
Main character: interesting
Set up: unique (I can’t remember any other book featuring hand-lettering)
Curiosity peaked: yes
Next we have the (eventual) love interest Reid who, with his fiancé, had been a client of Meg’s a year earlier when she was doing the wedding item stuff. As it turns out, Reid and his fiancé didn’t wind up getting married (for Reasons), something that isn’t a surprise to Meg, since she had hidden the message “Mistake” in their wedding program – obviously seeing the writing on the wall before they did. Reid (a smarty-numbers guy) is working in a job that is making him tense and he can’t wait to get away from New York.
Meg decides that helping Reid see New York through her eyes will (1) help with her own creative block and (2) help Reid like New York more. That sounds kind of dry, but the two of them together, especially in the beginning when they’re doing that awkward getting together / getting to know each other dance–via games featuring hand-lettered signs around New York–is really very sweet.
So, what’s the problem? you may be asking.
How many times have we talked in the past about the need for goals and conflict in a story? Stories develop as characters work toward their goals and are thwarted (so to speak). We spent what seemed like forever at McDaniel studying the conflict box and trying to nail down the conflict lock in our own stories.
-The story is launched when the protagonist pushes to achieve her goal.
-The story is shaped when the antagonist pushes to achieve his goal.
-The back-and-forth cause-and-effect pushing and blocking of goals is the fuel for the story.
-For the story to have a tight structure and focused central conflict, the actions of both the protagonist and antagonist must directly block their opponents’ pursuit of their goals. ~ Basics of Fiction from Jenny Crusie
In this story, Meg has a goal (that portfolio for the new job opportunity), but there is nothing keeping her from that, other than her own creative block.
Reid doesn’t really have a goal. He’s got a job, but we don’t see or hear anything about other than the fact that it is making him tense, so there’s no conflict. He’s just there, in the story being tall and broody.
Love Lettering is what I think of as a “slice of life” story. We meet the characters and a point in time, and then we see them living their lives for a while. Things happen. Good things. Bad things. But it’s not like the other new book I also read this week–Betting on Hope by the fabulous Kay Keppler–where our girl had a limited amount of time to save the family ranch or else. This book just kind of flows.
And that’s fine. For a while.
Love Lettering let us see a relationship build between the two main characters, in an entertaining and often lyrical way, but about two-thirds of the way through I started to think “so what?” Then, of course, the book took an unexpected turn near the end and I went from “so what?” to “you’re kidding me.” I was actually surprised to find out that the book was only about 300 pages. Listening to it, it felt like it was so much longer.
I read a number of the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, curious to see what others had thought of the story. On Amazon there are a number of quotes from high-profile authors and the book has averaged a little over 4-stars, so there are definitely fans. I was interested to see a number of reviews that basically said, “it’s not the book, it’s me that’s the problem,” and the number who just weren’t into the “lettering” aspect of the story and found it to distracting or confusing (I actually really liked that part).
These two review snippets kind of capture my thoughts on the book:
It was a nice steady story throughout, with no particular major storyline or event as such, though there is a small twist towards the end. ~ Amazon reviewer
It’s okay! Had its moments but could have been better.. ~ Amazon reviewer
So, here is the question I need help with:
For those who have read the story, what did I miss? Was there really conflict there and it was just too subtle for me to see?
For those who haven’t read the story, can you have a strong story without the dreaded conflict lock? Or does that just give you a story that would be so much stronger if only it had a conflict lock?