Picks and Pans Review: The Love Letter

updated 05/22/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Cathleen Schine

Helen MacFarquhar is the kind of bookish know-it-all who not only corrects perfect strangers on their grammar but interrupts her own private erotic musings to question English usage. When Helen receives a love letter at the bookstore she owns in quaint seaside Pequot, N.Y., she is thrown. Having believed herself above such banalities as passionate love, the divorcée nevertheless becomes obsessed: Was the missive—addressed to Goat and signed Ram intended for her? And if so, which of her many besotted (she imagines) customers, employees or friends has sent it?

On this solid comic premise, Cathleen Schine (Rameau's Niece) builds a satire that is rarely less than sublime. Drawing and then affectionately skewering her characters—among them rigid Helen herself; Johnny, the student-employee with whom she has a passionate affair; and especially Miss Skattergoods, the town spinster—Schine depicts both the fussy snobbism of bookstore intellectuals and the universal thrill of unexpected love.

Most amazing, she keeps us interested in the identity of the letter writer, which—when finally revealed—is both surprising and satisfying. A sophisticated and witty valentine of a novel. (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95)

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