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Book review: <i>Letters in Cardboard Boxes</i> by Abby Slovin

the cover of the book

Letters in Cardboard Boxes is a very realistic, well developed character study, that deals with fairly full and complex family dynamic issues in a sensitive and undramatic way, and is really given extra dimension by virtue of it's web-based publication.

The story

Parker has always relied on the special relationship she's had with her grandmother Dotty; the person she is closest to in the whole world. It's a bond lived not only in person, but also through a series of letters her grandmother sent her during her childhood. It's really all that makes her life anything more than a hollow charade, and she never even considered that this relationship isn't destined to last forever.

When it is revealed to Parker that her grandmother is ill, she also discovers a plethora of other things she didn't know about her grandmother. The fact that she mentors a troubled teen, her relationships from the past and the present, how she lived, and lives, her life in ways that don't involve Parker. And as Parker makes these discoveries, she not only learns things about her grandmother, but also about herself, and about letting go.

The style

Letters in Cardboard Boxes is written in the third person limited perspective, solely from Parker's point of view. The major characters are, of course, Parker and Dotty, and Tanya; the girl Dotty mentors. The story unfolds not only through the thoughts and actions of Parker, but also through letters, written between Dotty and Parker, and later old letters between Dotty and an unknown love. The pacing is solid, with the development and revelations well spaced and tear jerky in all the appropriate moments.

All the characters are very strong. Dotty is excellently rounded as an eccentric but frail old lady, and develops into a real person, an unknown quantity, for both Parker and the reader. Tanya's frailty is evident through her teenage over-confidence, and there are aspects to her personality that both draw out and compliment Parker. But Parker is the real success here, character-wise. At twenty nine, her development as a person is still far from complete. She is unsure about everything, a little bit tired, and due to previous trauma in her family life and the way she deals with stress, she is utterly incapable of expressing her feelings or coping with life in general. She can't relate well to men, but she's also very self-aware. The way she becomes overwhelmed by small things, or reacts unreasonably to trifles, actually at times made me feel frustrated because it's so spot on as a human response. And in creating such an empathetic and flawed character, the reader can relate with no problem at all.

And there is an extra dimension to Letters in Cardboard Boxes which, in my opinion, makes it really, really interesting; the novel is being published, like the serials of old, in a series of weekly installments on the website. It also contains a series of discussions with the author, somewhat like, I would imagine, having a book club where the author is invited, and also some photographs inspired by the novel. The website is very aesthetically pleasing and nicely done, and due to the nature of the publication – the serial releases, the discussions, and the 'unpublished' letters between Parker and Dotty that are being released – the website has a really dynamic feel to it, as though the novel, like Parker, is continually developing and growing and changing at the whim of the world. It's such a great and interesting way to publish, and it's even more interesting given the focus of Letters in Cardboard Boxes on traditional methods of communication for comfort; letter-writing.

Who is this book for?

Mainly for women and girls, not that the guys wouldn't get something out of it, but it really is exploring a female dynamic within the structure of a family.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Okay, I hate to harp on about these ones, and I probably over-recommend them, but if you're interested in novels that relate to family dynamics with a uniquely female twist and a large dose of honesty, you just can't go past Rebecca Wells. She's like the queen of the genre. So if you want more of this kind of thing, she's where you want to look. The other aspect is, of course, the web-based publication, and if anyone else knows other authors that have done this, please comment!

In short

Title: Letters in Cardboard Boxes
Author: Abby Slovin
Publisher: Available on the website
Year published: 2011
Pages: 406
Genre(s): Contemporary Literature
Review Type: