2015 Book Reviews · Favourite Books

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

‘1943, in the ruins of Blitzed London…Stella Thorne and Dan Rosinski meet by chance and fall in love by accident. Theirs is a reluctant, unstoppable affair in which all the odds are stacked against them: she is newly married, and he is an American bomber pilot whose chance of survival is just one in five…He promised to love her forever Seventy years later Dan makes one final attempt to find the girl he has never forgotten, and sends a letter to the house where they shared a brief yet perfect happiness. But Stella has gone, and the letter is opened by Jess, a young girl hiding from problems of her own. And as Jess reads Dan’s words, she is captivated by the story of a love affair that burned so bright and dimmed too soon. Can she help Dan find Stella before it is too late? Now forever is finally running out.’

A huge thank you to the publishers for sending me a copy of Letters to the Lost. I was lucky enough to be able to ask Iona some questions for the Blog Tour  of this book, which i will be attaching to the end of my review!

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Every now and then a book enters your life and it steals a piece of your heart irrevocably, that book for me is Letters to the Lost. When I started this I had no idea just how much I would fall in love with it, as a self-confessed bookworm I’ve loved and adored many books but only a small few have stolen my heart. Those few I read over and over again, year in, year out. This book will be one of those story’s that I treasure and re-read time and time again.

The story is told as a dual time narrative. We first meet Jess, it’s 2011 and she is on the run from an abusive boyfriend. With only the clothes on her back and some money in her pocket she is quite literally running for her life, when she comes across a dark and neglected looking house. Fear of what will happen to her when her boyfriend catches her makes her break into the house for safety, the house is quite clearly abandoned and it is in this empty house that Jess discovers the story of Stella and Dan… It all starts with one letter, Dan is really very sick, in fact he doesn’t have long at all. It may be years and years since they last saw each other but Dan promised to love her forever and it seems he stuck to that promise. and now in his last days he wants to find Stella and say goodbye properly. Jess discovers every letter that Dan had ever sent and works her way through them, these letters get under Jess’s skin and she finds herself corresponding with Dan and promising to find out what happened to Stella. But while she is doing that, Will Holt is on a mission to find out about Nancy the woman who it seems owns the abandoned little house, so he can sort out getting what she left behind to the right people rather than the government getting it.

But in 1942, Stella, a young girl from the Poor School is about to marry the vicar from St Crispin’s Parish, Charles. On her wedding day Stella can’t help but wonder why Charles spends most of his time in the company of his best friend Peter rather than be by her side. Then when it comes to the wedding night it would seem Charles is disgusted with the thought of what is about to happen, so Stella is left feeling humiliated. And it’s only a few days later that Charles drops the bombshell that he has signed up and will be leaving her in 4 days time.Stella’s marriage is far from the happy ever after she expected and is left feeling unloved but help to forget all that comes in the form of her best friend Nancy. Nancy is the polar opposite to Stella, she is confident, vivacious and carefree and she forces Stella to go out with her and let her hair down. While they are out having fun they spend the evening with some American Soldiers and by the end of the night they all end up in an abandoned church. Stella finds herself in an uncomfortable situation and runs home.But the next day Stella realizes she has left her watch behind so returns in order to find it. It is here that she first meets Dan, he offers to help find her watch and then quite simply rescues her when she faints. Before they part ways he promises to try to find her watch and return it if he is successful, so Stella gives him Nancy’s address and they say goodbye, for now. Stella is in a deeply unhappy marriage and without meaning to falls deeply in love with Dan. They send each other letters and meet whenever they can, their love is pure and easy, they don’t have to work at it because it’s natural, unlike the love Charles is trying to portray in his marriage to Stella. But things don’t end up perfect for Stella and Dan…

I could talk for years about this book, I could go on and on and on about what happens but if I do that I may giveaway the story completely so I need to stop there. (I don’t want to stop though).

Iona’s characters are so realistic and likable. I found myself really rooting for Dan and Stella and hoping against all hope that they would get their happy ever after even though we know from Dan’s most recent letter that they didn’t. But also I found myself desperately wanting a happy ending for Jess, she was such a lovely girl who took a few wrong turns in life and her friendship with Will was absolutely swoon-worthy. It seemed so unlikely that they could ever be anything more than friends but then when you dug a little deeper and got to know more of Will, it seemed less unlikely and more than a little perfect and then you find you are rooting for two impossible love stories.

Letters to the Lost is a truly romantic love story but it is also a story of struggle, pain and heartbreak. It’s an incredible book that will take your breath away as Iona transports you through time. Iona deals with many issues within Letters to the Lost. The difficulties of life during the war, the inequalities that women faced and the fear people had towards illnesses that they did not yet understand. Iona has written a breathtaking story that is powerful yet tender, it will have you sobbing your heart out whilst smiling until your face hurts, it’s quite simply perfection. Letters to the Lost will grab you from the very first page and keep you up at night racing through the pages in desperation to find out what happens next. I didn’t want it to end and when it did I felt bereft, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye so quickly, so I had to read it all over again and then carry it around in my bag for a few weeks, just to be close to it. It was impossible to say goodbye.

There will never be enough words good enough to describe to you just how perfect this book is, I want to stand in the streets forcing it into people’s hands and shout from the rooftops “BUY THIS BOOK”.

And now for my Q&A with Iona, I have to say I actually squealed in delight while reading through these answers!

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1. Letters to the Lost is one of the best books I have ever, EVER read and was completely impossible to put down. Where did Stella and Jess’s story come from?

Can I just start with a little squeal and say that reading your opening line is like a total life ambition achieved. THANK YOU! Now, to get my sensible head back on and answer the question, I think I’ve always been fascinated with the war. I’m of the generation whose parents had lived through it as small children (mine were both born in 1940) and whose grandparents had been directly, actively involved in it as young adults. When I was a child it was something that was talked about quite a lot in my family, from tales that took on the status of legends (how my Inverness Nana came to almost lose the tips of her fingers when the window was blown in as she was making up a bottle for my dad) to casual, conversational mentions about rationing and life on the home front. (‘When I was little we were lucky to get jam once a week’/ ‘I never saw a banana until I was five’/ that sort of thing) It always captured my imagination and I think it was inevitable that I was going to use it all in a book one day, so I suppose that’s where Stella’s story came from.

The source of Jess’s story is harder to place. Someone has suggested to me recently that she’s a modern day version of Stella, and I think that’s true. Her story is Stella’s story in the age of the welfare state. Jess is eventually able (after Will’s intervention) to call on the help of the authorities to begin to find a way out of her situation, which was an avenue not open to Stella. However, Stella had a community around her which Jess doesn’t. It makes an interesting contrast.

2. What sort of research did you have to do for Letters to the Lost?

Not only did I grow up listening to the family stories, but I also sought out every book and film and TV documentary about the war, so I’ve been gathering information about life on the home front for as long as I can remember. That gave me a good foundation for the story and made me feel confident enough to start writing it, though there were millions of things along the way that I had to look up, like exactly how much bathwater was allowed (I think it was 5 inches) and what kind of meals ordinary people ate every day. I had a regular email hotline to my mum to ask the kind of questions that the internet just couldn’t answer, like how did you go about buying a house in the days before there were 15 Estate Agents on every high street, and would there have been room service and en-suite bathrooms in a 1940s hotel (the answer was yes to the room service if the hotel was smart enough, and no to the en-suite.)

The military bits required more focused research. Just like Jess, my first stop was the library where I stripped the shelves of everything relating to the USAAF. I dragged my family to IWM Duxford, where we saw a B-17 and I stalked a lovely museum guide and bombarded him with questions about the American crews. He told me where there had been an airfield nearby, and pointed us in the direction of the pub where the men used to drink. Its walls were covered in photos of crews and planes and there was a memorial to the lost men in the car park (which would  have been right at the end of the original runway, I think), which was really poignant and made Dan all the more real to me.

3. I simply adored the relationship between Dan and Stella. I loved how they met and how Dan came to her rescue when she fainted. I think one of my favorite parts was when Dan turned up to the church fete and he pretended to be a part of The Special Allocation of Supplies Scheme. What was a favorite part for you?

I liked the Cambridge bits. Writing them had a special kind of poignancy because *SPOILER ALERT* I pretty much knew that this was going to be the most time they’d ever have together and I wanted to cram as much into it as possible, for their sakes! I’m an absolute sucker for a love story and the romantic bits are the ones that flow most easily onto the page. I also got a little shiver when I wrote the bit about Dan’s beach house because, although I hadn’t written the prologue at that time, I knew that one day Stella would one day finally get to visit that house.

4. Reading the letters that Dan sent made me a little gooey, it was so romantic. If you could choose anyone to send you love letters who would you have? I think I would go for Dan or maybe Mr Gosling 😉

Oh, now that’s a very, very good question and one which requires much careful consideration and a little bit of idle googling of luscious men.  I feel like I have to say my husband, to be polite (which he probably deserves after being married to me for a hundred and twenty years) but obviously I’d secretly like a love letter from someone far more mysterious and elusive. And literary. My husband tends to be pretty much to the point, and can’t say anything  serious without being ironic or sarcastic so it would be nice to get one from someone who was intense and poetic.  Though actually, there’s a real danger that intense poetry might just make me smirk like a schoolgirl, so perhaps I should probably just stick to my husband after all.

5. Jess’s story was so heart-breaking and her friendship with Will was just as compelling as Stella and Dan’s story. Without a doubt my favourite part of the story with these two was the wedding they attended together. What was your favourite part involving them?

I liked the wedding too! When Will’s obnoxiously perfect brother first stepped onto the page with his glossy, high-powered fiancée, I thought it would be fun to see them in the process of planning the ultimate statement wedding, but at that stage I never imagined that it would become such an integral part of the plot. It was great to transport Jess into Will’s world, and see them facing it together. I was also happy that she finally got a chance to use her voice! (which I suppose was sort of symbolic – though it wasn’t planned like that!)

6. It wasn’t all sweetness and light though, and there was a really dark and harrowing part of Stella’s story involving her husband Charles. Were there any moments when writing their story that you cried?

Their story turned out to be darker than I’d initially planned, but that crept up on me gradually as I wrote and was emphasised more as the book went through the editing process. Viewed through 21st Century eyes Charles appears irredeemably evil, but I think he was a product – and a victim – of his time. It’s horrendous to contemplate, but domestic violence against women was terrifyingly commonplace and even accepted at that time. (Distasteful as it is to us now, I think there was a deeply ingrained belief that violence was simply a man’s way of expressing anger, and that they almost couldn’t help it. It was up to the woman not to ‘push’ him to it.) I didn’t cry while I was writing their story, but I did feel absolutely outraged on Stella’s behalf, and on behalf of every woman who must have found herself in a similar situation at the time. Divorce was expensive and still relatively uncommon. One party had to admit to being at fault, so for Stella to have obtained a divorce from Charles he would have had to accept the blame for assaulting her (which he would never have done), or she would have had to cite her adultery. If she did, it’s highly unlikely she would have been given the custody of their child. Her situation made me sad, but more than that it made me incredulous and angry. There are still many battles to be fought in the name of feminism, but thankfully we’ve come a long, long way since those dark days.

7. What made you set your book in both 2011 and the 1940s?

I’d always wanted to write a dual time frame book. I’m a hopeless history addict and I love historical novels, but I think there’s something really poignant about setting the past side by side with the present. Hindsight gives us all a different perspective. The 1940s was a decade like no other, and I find it endlessly fascinating. The war moved ordinary people around the globe on an unprecedented scale, providing huge opportunity, but also imposing massive restrictions on their freedom. It played a major part in our personal history, as well as the political and social history we read about in books. So many of us wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the chance meeting of our grandparents during military postings or off-duty dances!

8. Were there any parts that were edited out that you can tell us about?

There was Will’s tortuous visit to Crewe. In the original draft that section was much longer, and we truly felt his frustration (and not in a good way) as he visited Walter Cooke’s many family members. Thank goodness for tactful editors!

9. If you had to marry either Dan or Will who would you choose.

I want to say Dan, but I know his heart would only ever belong to Stella!

10. While writing what was your go-to snack?

Writing the book coincided with my youngest daughter’s interest in baking reaching the stage where she was old enough to do it independently. Perfect storm. While I was boringly shut away writing she would be in the kitchen making 47 different varieties of cupcake. It would have been really rude not to eat them, wouldn’t it?


You can buy the book here.

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2 thoughts on “Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

  1. It is so rare that I got smitten with the book like by this one… So well written and sophisticated, so enchanting and believable…. Loved every moment reading it. I just cannot let it go, have my copy with me all the time. Dan was my favourite, I ma totally heartbroken for him (and Stella too) and I continue living their story in my mind….

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