Friday, April 08, 2011

Four Letters of Love

Four Letters of Love / Niall Williams
London: Picador, c1997.
342 p.

I've had this on my shelf for a long time; in fact, it is on my "20 Books To Read This Year List" which I made in an effort to clear some space on my overloaded shelves. I kept this book so long because I wanted to read it, and there were some good bits in it, but as a whole I have to admit it didn't really do anything for me.

Here's the storyline: Isabel and Nicholas live separate lives in Ireland. Nicholas is an only child whose dysfunctional family includes a father who thinks he is called by God to wander the countrysides and paint and a mother who locks herself in her room once her husband disappears. Isabel is an Island girl, a clever one, and heads to school on the mainland once she outgrows the small island school run by her father. She gets into all kinds of mischief and ends up convincing herself that she is in love with a lumpish kind of fellow she meets while in boarding school, while Nicholas gets himself a job as a government clerk until the moment when both of his parents are dead. They still haven't met by this time, by the way.

Their two stories run parallel and then finally meet as Nicholas decides to reclaim his father's one painting still known to be in existence, a painting that was given as a prize in a poetry contest that had been won by Isabel's father. So off he goes to the island where he meets the family (Isabel is back in Dublin by this time, having been married the day previous to his arrival). And he falls in love with her in one brief meeting, returning to the family to write her four letters, the four letters of LOVE I suppose. But there is no resolution, Isabel doesn't come and Nicholas doesn't recover from his infatuation.

Did I mention that Isabel has a twin brother Sean who has been in a strange coma since childhood, and Nicholas' arrival mysteriously restores him to full speech, movement and awareness? And that the painting mystically spreads itself out into the air of the schoolroom as Nicholas and Sean walk by? And that I wasn't sure if I was reading an Irish novel or some South American magical realism kind of novel? It was all too much for me, and I failed to really grasp the point of all this to-ing and fro-ing between Isabel and Nicholas. If you build it up there should be something for the reader in the end. At least I thought so.

If you like dreamy, meandering Irish novels with eccentric characters you might like this. It all felt a little too suffocating for me, though. At least it's one more book off my shelf and passed on to unsuspecting others ;) It just wasn't the book for me at this time. Everyone else -- and I mean everyone -- seems to love it, so don't trust my opinion... you'll have to try this one for yourself and see what you think.


  1. That's interesting. I haven't read Williams myself and one of the reasons I haven't picked him up is because he has split the library group to which I belong and most of the people who enjoy the same books that I do have felt as you about him. Not a writer I'm going to rush to read, then.

  2. Annie - whew, I thought I was alone in my opinion; everybody I saw talking about it was raving and I was wondering what I was missing! Guess a writer can't appeal to everyone.

  3. I remember reading Niall Williams's As It Is In Heaven in May of 2001 [I keep accurate records] and being not exactly blown away by the book. I found it to be exactly as you are describing this one, "dreamy" "meandering" and "Irish".... I have nothing against any of these words on their own, but as a triumvirate... hmm, the combo makes it seem a bit too Nicholas Sparksy to me.
    Definitely not a book I would run back into a burning [or even smoldering] house to retrieve.

  4. Cipriano - a bit Nicholas Sparksy...yes, exactly what I was trying to express :)


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