After years of working on wedding invitations and stationary, Meg Mackworth’s hand-lettering business is just taking off when a former groom, Reid Sutherland, reappears. Demanding to know how she knew his relationship was doomed to failure, and why she hid a message stating just that in the very programme for his wedding, Reid wants answers before he leaves New York for good.
Having explained her ability to read signs and weave them into her work, Meg and Reid begin a journey of finding art around New York and its many signs, both of them finding personal and professional inspiration along the way. But are the signs really there in this book, or does the writing on the wall need some proof-reading?
I love romance novels but I was disappointed in this book, mainly because bits of it worked so well, only to be let down by a flimsy plot. I read a lot of romance, both contemporary and historical, and I love seeing how different authors deploy the shapes and patterns of the genre to make a love story feel fresh each time. What upset me about this particular example is that the central couple were so lovely and their relationship so well drawn that it was intensely frustrating that they didn’t get the plot they deserved.
In one of my favourite lectures at university, my lecturer suggested to us that we see literary genres and forms as like Lego. Lego is all about making something out of the bricks you already have in front of you, and the interesting thing about it is how each time you put the bricks together in a different order, you can make something brand new that only you could have made. The challenge is to work out how to make something using the pre-established shapes of the blocks.
This analogy is absolutely perfect for a genre like romance fiction. It is so often criticised for being formulaic but in many ways, that is the whole point. Like a sonnet or a haiku, the creativity of the form lies in how different authors write their text within the established boundaries, using, playing with, and undercutting those conventions to create something new each time.
What annoys me about Love Lettering is that some of the bricks are missing. Although the development of Reid and Meg’s relationship was sweet and convincing, I felt totally let down by how their relationship initially comes together and it overshadowed the whole book. Meg, in designing the programme for Reid’s wedding a year earlier, had subtly highlighted a few letters on the cover, spelling out the word ‘MISTAKE’. Quite aside from the fact that this is almost hilariously savage, the book never really explores it beyond using it to set up Reid and Meg’s second meeting.
At first, I thought there might be a bit of magical realism going on with Meg’s lettering as a way that only Meg and Reid can communicate with each other. This could have worked quite well, playing with the genre ideas of fate and connection and signs, and making them more literal. But as the book goes on, it seems like sometimes Meg just decides to chuck stuff like this in for no reason and that’s that. Once Meg and Reid have discussed that yes, she knew she’d done it, and no, it’s not the only reason his relationship ended, there is no logical reason for the two to see each other again apart from the fact that the pair are the leads in a romance novel; that’s just not a good enough justification.
Meg emails Reid to invite him on a walk around New York where they look for handpainted signs and she tries to find inspiration, and these walks become the foundation of their relationship. The justification for her inviting him is that she wants company, and the walks themselves create the space for their developing feelings, but there is absolutely no reason why on earth she asks him in the first place. Once they start to get to know each other, their interactions have more reason and substance, but the lack of justification for their romantic meet-cute just led me to feeling frustrated. For a book that’s meant to be about fate and reading the signs, the signs just feel contrived.
It might have worked better if Meg had interacted with Reid more at the time of planning his wedding, but we only hear about this interaction in passing. The little we know about this interaction also just makes Meg, an otherwise interesting and relatable character, look weirdly petty and calculating; based on one that brief interaction, she decides his relationship is doomed and then as soon as she knows he’s single, she makes her move.
A romance cannot just rely on the chemistry of the central couple; the shape of the story has to flow and allow the formula to work. I think perhaps the problem with this novel is that it needed better editing, a tightening up of the screws to allow what was a genuinely heart-warming love story to play out. I’m hoping on a second read the plot will feel more cohesive, and I really did genuinely enjoy the central love story and the depiction of female friendship that builds in the background of the novel. But the initial conceit had far more potential than is realised here, and the more challenging and interesting parts of the plot were fudged over to get to the relationship bit, and that just feels like cheating.