Not only can Camille Griep get into my head, (witness More Reflections on Letters to Zell and Not Being “That Kind of Guy”) but she seems to have lived several lifetimes to be able to write such a fun yet never frivolous deep dive into relationships. How does she make thoroughly entertaining, engaging, challenging and even page-turning exciting letters to the fairy-tale princess Rapunzel from her friends Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella? (See Goodreads for a summary of the plot.) I think maybe she has more than a little fairy magic herself. Of course, Zell, Bianca, Rory & CeCi aren’t as we imagined them, nor is Grimmland. I’m now thinking Ms. Griep’s words bewitched me because I’ve done things I’ve never done before. I wrote two posts prior to finishing the book. I rarely do multiple posts on the same book, but I have never posted before I’ve read the whole thing. I felt a little like a stalker blog. The first two posts aren’t reviews, but musings on topics inspired by the book, its characters, and their relationships. Oh, wait, this her debut novel as well. Definitely magic.
This book makes you reflect – a lot. You reflect on how truthful you are with yourself and others. It makes you realize that almost all of your actions are tainted by selfishness; as a pastor friend once told me “I’ve never met an unmixed motive.” It makes you reflect on the ethics of pursuing what seems right for you juxtaposed to the impact on others. It makes you think about unintended consequences and when helping hurts. Most of all, it shows the importance of genuinely listening. Not listening to make a point, or give advice or fix an issue. Rather, giving and receiving full-on, face-on listening. All of that reflection, however, is bundled in this delightful package of the challenges these women face and working through it via letters to their now distant friend Zell. So, while it sounds like work and possibly a bit dull, it’s really fun and more than a little exciting. Now, not to give any spoilers, but there is gut-wrenching sadness as well. Picture a good Cecil B. DeMille Biblical extravaganza with a man tearing his garments in two, then sitting on the ground and pouring ashes over his tear-streaked head. Yup, I was that guy a couple of times while reading. All of which is to say this is a special book whose pages I waded in lightly thinking it was just a fun premise and who came out the ringer on the other side.
What do I love about Letters to Zell?
- The characters: they all have their challenging side and their charms, but they all feel real. Their quirks add flavor. They genuinely care about one another but often, unknowingly, care a bit more about themselves. You could definitely hang with them and have a pint or two. The breadth of characters are many and the names could be confusing, but you grew to love (most of) them. For example, there are so many times I well up in righteous indignation on behalf of some character only to realize it’s all a bit more complicated. We all fall short of the glory of God yet all are image-bearers. There is plenty of wrong we each do and there are some (mileage varies with the person) that we get right.
- The relationships: We delude ourselves, present our delusions to others and we don’t listen. Those three issues permeate almost every challenge these four women must overcome. Yet the work through it all (mostly).
- The “dialog”: the encounters among the ladies is given from differing first person accounts based on the letter’s author. Often, we’ll read multiple back-to-back accounts of the same events from the princesses various perspectives. This could have dragged on. Instead, the pacing, wording and variations all kept this fresh.
- The world: While this isn’t the most complicated world in fantasy fiction, it is exceptionally well executed and clever. Ms. Griep unveiles it through dialog and letters in due times and perfect measure.
- The narrative arc: the storyline is brilliant. You begin thinking it’s about one thing and you land somewhere else. The story emerges so organically that you don’t realize how you got there.
- Reflective entertainment: It’s a new genre. Seriously, few books that are this much fun have spurred this much reflection.
Of what am I less found?
- I love Bianca’s snarkiness as a whole, but the f-bomb became the f-dud through overuse (and she’s not even from London). Her salutation of “Important F**king Correspondence from Snow B. White …: got a little old.
- The use of a lesbian relationship in Grimmland seems a bit forced and people’s reactions seem unrealistic given it appears to be the one and only public instance. The relationship itself, like the rest, unfolds organically.
- Guys come off looking pretty bad as a whole. Just saying.
As is my wont, I went between the Audible version, narrated by Amy McFadden and the Kindle version. The voices of Bianca, Rory and CeCi will be indelibly imprinted on my mind with Ms. McFadden’s performances. I’m a fan of Ms. McFadden’s narration being introduced to her through The Paper Magician series. Indeed, it was the fact the she narrated Letters to Zell (and its cool cover) that brought my attention to the book.
This is the perfect book for a book club or friends or husband and wife. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll see yourself in the characters as well as others. Mostly, you’ll see the futility of long-term feuds, rush to judgment and especially trying to prove you’re right. All those cute little motivational pictures you see on Facebook are right; life is too short to hold a grudge even when you are immortal. As a Christian, I sometimes don’t agree with some of the conclusions or approaches, but all the major lessons on relationships are brilliant.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Read it. Have fun and learn a little about yourself, how you spin your story and how to live an authentic life. I am officially a Zell-head (Camille, feel free to copyright). I wait with bated breath for her forthcoming New Charity Blues, coming in 2016 (I guess I’ll have to breathe a little until then.) Good reading.
[Banner photos courtesy of Camille Griep’s Facebook page]