When Jennifer Stirling wakes up in a London hospital in 1960, she has no memory of who she is or of the car crash that brought her there. Her story, deftly woven by novelist Jojo Moyes, moves between the events leading up to the accident and Jennifer’s attempt to return to a life she does not recognize—and one she realizes she does not want.
As she searches for small clues to her former self, she finds—secreted away in corners of her home—passionate letters written to her by a lover she can’t remember. Who is the man who signs only “B”? Where is he? What happened to their romance?
Jennifer also discovers the true nature of her marriage to the wealthy and powerful Laurence; their glamorous parties and luxury homes mask an unhappy marriage and an empty existence. As the growing discontent of Jennifer’s privileged, lonely life becomes impossible for her to ignore, Laurence admits his full knowledge of her mysterious lover and the cause of her accident.
As Jennifer attempts in vain to chase down a chance at a life that may no longer exist, Moyes moves the story ahead forty years to 2003 and introduces us to Ellie, a young reporter in London. Struggling with an unsatisfying affair with a married lover and barely keeping her career afloat, Ellie is lost in her own life. While researching for an article for the newspaper’s anniversary edition, she stumbles on a heartbreaking letter in the newspaper’s archives. Struck by the beauty of the letter’s plea—and desperate for a chance to impress her editor—Ellie decides to track down the woman to whom the letter is addressed, and the mysterious writer, “B.” By piecing together what remains of this long-lost love, Ellie profoundly transforms Jennifer’s life, and her own in the process.
The Last Letter from Your Lover is a smart, emotionally affecting novel that spans decades and far-flung locales, and in it Moyes presents a nuanced and realistic portrait of love, marriage, and fidelity, both today and generations ago. The passion and tenderness of the affair between Jennifer and “B” leap off the page with nearly palpable energy; the lovers’ connection is undeniable, marked by an erotic and intellectual attraction that has the power to upend their lives. Proof of the enduring strength and redemptive power of love, the novel is by turns tender, sad, and inspiring, and its final pages will leave readers clutching their books—and their tissues.
Jojo Moyes grew up in London and studied at London University. In addition to writing fiction, she writes for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. She currently lives in Essex with her husband and three children.
Q. How did you prepare for writing this novel? Did any friends or family share stories of their own love letters?
Yes, I was fairly shameless in getting people to show me theirs. I put an advertisement in a national newspaper in England and on social networking sites, asking for examples, and begged them from relatives and friends. I think when you are writing there’s nothing like real life to inspire you (and show you how odd the vagaries of the human heart can be). I also looked at my own old love letters from twenty years ago. What fascinated me was not just the passion and urgency that leapt off the page, but the sense of reading about the life of someone I no longer really recognized.
Q. In this era of e-mail and texting, how do you feel the art of letter writing (love or otherwise) has changed?
Completely. I first got a hint of this when a young female relative told me she’d never received a love letter, and I realized that this was a generational thing; that mine was probably the last generation to write and receive love letters as a matter of course. I think the great danger of new technologies, whether they be Facebook or e-mail or text, is the potential for reading too much between the lines. Ellie, for example, ascribes all sorts of feelings to her lover that aren’t actually there. I think technology often makes the language of romance murkier, not clearer.
Q. Jennifer and Ellie demonstrate the great shift in women’s place in society over the past forty years. What do you think are the biggest differences between Ellie and Jennifer, both in terms of the expectations placed on them by society and the expectations they have for their own lives?
What Ellie has is freedom; to sleep with whomever she wants, without shame, to work, to earn her own money, to make her own mistakes. Jennifer’s might look like an enviable life, with her money and cosseted existence, but she is there merely to, as she puts it, “look decorative.” Her husband is not just uninterested in her opinions, but actively wishes that she shouldn’t express them. But it doesn’t occur to her to question this until she meets Boot. Both women discover that there is a genuine satisfaction from working, being able to look themselves in the eye, and expecting more of themselves.
Q. Thanks to the popularity of the TV series Mad Men, the early 1960s are a very hot era right now, especially in terms of clothing and design. What is the appeal of this time period?
I think it’s mostly the issue of restraint. What is always powerful in narrative terms is what you can’t have, rather than what you can—the things that keep people (and lovers) apart—whether it be society, morality, issues of shame or actual physical and geographical issues like war.
What’s fascinating about that particular era is that you have all the restrictive moral codes of an older society butting up against the new freedoms of the sixties. It was a society in flux. Ten years later, if Jennifer had wanted to run off with Boot, probably neither of them would have hesitated.
Q. You really play around with time and the traditional narrative structure, not just moving between Jennifer’s and Ellie’s lives but also shifting Jennifer’s storyline between before and after the accident to tease out B’s identity. Why did you choose to structure the novel this way? Was it difficult to achieve?
Yes! And it took a leap of faith to believe the readers would come with me. One of the things I love when I’m reading is if the author trusts my intelligence enough to let me deduce things myself. By playing with narrative structure in such an extreme way, I felt I might be testing that to the limit. But luckily, it seems to have been one of the elements that people liked most. What was difficult was making each part distinct enough that the moving around in time and space wouldn’t be too confusing; using different narrative voices (i.e. ,Boot instead of Jennifer) helped clarify it.
Q. The novel presents a fascinating view of relationships past and present. Today, anecdotally, it’s said that half of all marriages will end in divorce. In Jennifer’s era, divorce was still a social taboo. Why do you think popular attitudes have changed? What response do you think Jennifer and Laurence’s domestic arrangement would get today? Do you think the increase in divorce is healthier than older eras’ decision to stick it out no matter how unhappy the marriage?
I think popular attitudes have changed because so many people were so miserable. But also because there is a much greater emphasis on personal freedoms, perhaps too much sometimes.
I’ve been married thirteen years but wouldn’t dare to consider myself an expert. What I would say is that if you grit your teeth and stick things out when you hit trouble, instead of following your initial instinct to go, you often find that a year down the line you have something richer and deeper than you could have imagined. I think those who jump ship often don’t believe that this can happen, and that’s a real shame. So as far as your question goes, I think there’s probably a happy medium for most people. If something is abusive, then go, without question. For most people, though, especially where there are children, I think it’s worth giving it everything you’ve got.
Q. You’ve created a complete world for Jennifer and Ellie, with a broad spectrum of friends, coworkers, and employees. Of your secondary characters, who is your favorite and why?
I did love writing Don, the news editor, mostly because I used to have an editor just like him; a wisecracking news junkie, but incredibly loyal to his colleagues. There was proper love between him and Anthony. I also had a soft spot for Moira Parker. She was so much the product of her time, and so obviously destined to be disappointed. I could picture her even before I started to write her.
Q. How much of your own experience as a journalist went into writing Ellie’s scenes at the newspaper? Now that you’re focusing on fiction, do you miss that daily newsroom environment? What lessons from journalism have you applied to your fiction writing?
I think it took me a good year of being a full-time writer before I stopped missing the adrenaline of the newsroom. And even now, when a big news event happens, I have to resist the urge to call up and ask if they need an extra pair of hands. To get over it, I have a shared office in a small town near where I live; it means I have a fresh source of gossip and a reason to get dressed in the mornings.
And yes, a lot of my experience went into the newsroom scenes. I also went to the British Newspaper Library and immersed myself in newspapers of the day so that I could get a real sense of the preoccupations of the era, its language and advertisements. The asbestos plotline came from a huge advertising pullout on “Asbestos the Wonder Mineral” I found while doing my research.
Journalism has taught me so many things useful for writing fiction. The first is to see stories everywhere; journalism really teaches you to listen and to ask questions—why is that window always open? Is this wonder mineral really as good as it seems? Why does Mrs. Smith at No. 42 race off as soon as her husband leaves?
It also taught me that it’s my responsibility to keep the reader interested. In journalism, if the reader doesn’t get beyond the intro, then it’s your fault. I can’t see the difference with fiction. But mostly—and my publishers love me for this—it means I never miss a deadline.
Q. The first and the last sentence of a novel have tremendous impact on a reader. As a writer, how do you know when you’ve finally captured those moments? Why did you choose the sentences that you did?
I’m not sure you do know, apart from in your gut. All I know is that I tweak and fiddle until it feels right. And often, until it makes me cry. If my own scenes don’t move me, I don’t believe they’ll move anyone else. So often it’s a matter of reworking something until I’m sobbing.
Writing is a very strange profession.