Emma Valentini is the successful owner of a bookstore in Milan, Italy dedicated to love and romance. Although she hasn't exactly been lucky in love, she is a romantic at heart. One morning as she dusts the shelves before opening, Emma finds a Post-it note stuck within the pages of a book. The note merely has the name Frederico along with a phone number. Emma can't help wondering if this is the same Frederico who was her high-school sweetheart and the love of her life over thirty years ago. After wrestling with the idea in her mind, Emma finally decides to call the number only to find that it was indeed her Frederico who had left the note.
Frederico Virgili is an architect who now lives in New York City. Although he was the one to break off their relationship, he has never forgotten Emma. When he spots her in her bookstore on a trip to Milan, he can't resist seeing if they can rekindle their lost love. The two lovers begin to write each other regularly, reigniting the intimacy they once shared. Once a year, on the anniversary of Frederico finding Emma again, they meet at a secluded hideaway in France for a few days of romantic bliss. Although they both long for something more, it seems that they are destined to continue with this long-distance relationship, for Frederico is married to another woman. Even though he doesn't love her in the same way he loves Emma, Frederico feels a responsibility to his wife and daughter that makes his romance with Emma an "impossible love."
I agreed to review P. O. Box Love because it was billed as a romance and the theme of reunited loves is a favorite of mine. It definitely is a love story, however, I will caution my fellow romance readers that this is a literary romance rather than a genre romance. When I first started reading the book and realized this, I wasn't sure if I was going to like it or not, but in the end was very pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it was. P. O. Box Love is the story of two high-school sweethearts who serendipitously find one another again after thirty years apart. They then rekindle their relationship through writing letters to one another over a period of four years, punctuated by once a year romantic interludes in France. P. O. Box Love is primarily an epistolary novel comprised of the letters exchanged by the two main characters, but these missives are interspersed with the heroine's first-person narratives. This is another way in which the story is much different than most romances I read in that Emma and Frederico spend most of the novel apart. Their romance also takes on a somewhat melancholy tone, because it is a rather impossible one due to Frederico already being married and very reluctant to leave his wife. Normally, this thread of infidelity would be quite troublesome to me, but for some reason it didn't bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. I think this was mainly owing to the fact that, much like Emma, the reader gets to know very little about Frederico's wife, and as a result, it almost seems like she doesn't exist.
Being every bit as passionate about books as Emma is, it would have been impossible for me not to like her. She is the owner of a bookstore in Milan called Dreams & Desires which specializes in books relating to love and romance. I think that Emma's store shows that she is something of a hopeless romantic, which is probably why her heart was open to the possibility of reigniting a long lost love when Frederico reappears in her life, and also why she continued the relationship in spite of several times being tempted to end it. Emma is rather old-fashioned as well. She refuses to use a computer or a cell phone, and has a general aversion to most forms of technology which is how she ended up writing letters to Frederico rather than e-mailing, texting or phoning. On some level, I agree with Emma's views, because technology has created a certain loss in the art of communication. Hardly anyone ever sits down to write a letter anymore, so this aspect gave the story a very quaint feeling that I adored. I also thought it was rather sweet and funny that Emma's friends and family seemed to subconsciously view her as some sort of expert on love and romance because her store was focused on those subjects, as they all bring their relationship woes to her.
Frederico is an architect who is working in New York City on the reconstruction of the Morgan Library. We really only get to know him through his letters to Emma and the tidbits of dialog they share when they are together. He is definitely a man who is conflicted. Emma had always thought that Frederico broke up with her due to a youthful indiscretion that led her to kiss another man, but in reality, he had given in to pressure from his family who didn't feel Emma was good enough for him. In the end, he married a woman befitting his station and who was good at being a wife, but whom he never loved in the same way as Emma. He didn't deliberately seek Emma out, but when he found her again, he couldn't resist starting over with her in spite of his marriage. I believe a part of him wanted to leave his wife and be fully with Emma, but his sense of responsibility toward her and their daughter wouldn't allow him to. While I don't condone his infidelity, I did understand it on some level. It was never just about the sex, but about the fact that he enjoyed a deep friendship and an intimacy with Emma that I don't believe he ever had with his wife.
I really enjoyed the progression of Emma and Frederico's relationship and the way that they communicate their emotions through the language of books and architecture. Throughout the story they influence each other a great deal. Through Frederico's passion for architecture, Emma learns to appreciate buildings and their design more, and through Emma's passion for books, Frederico learns to appreciate them more. Suddenly, his work on the Morgan library is much more than just building something as he begins to think more about the things that will be housed there. The language of books was such a lovely way for Emma and Frederico to express their emotions. Even though I have to admit that I've read virtually none of the books mentioned, I couldn't help but feel connected to them anyway, especially Emma. The titles of the books may have been different than the ones that I usually read, but I believe wholeheartedly that the language of books is a universal one to anyone who is passionate about them.
Paola Calvetti does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of time and place too. Emma's bookstore is almost a character unto itself. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it grow and change. It was kind of like watching a butterfly emerge from it's cocoon, as was Frederico's work on the Morgan. I loved all of Emma's window displays and shelf themes. Organizing by themes is something I can definitely relate to as I do that a lot myself. All the "peaceful oases" that Frederico finds within the bustling metropolis of New York City made it seems like a much more tranquil place than I'm sure it is. The Strand bookstore and the Morgan Library itself both sound like little slices of heaven on earth to a book lover like myself. Emma and Frederico's romantic hideaway in Brittany sounded absolutely wonderful as well, a secluded place that is almost outside of time and space.
The decidedly literary quality of P. O. Box Love in many ways puts me outside its target audience. This style made for a bit more dense reading than I'm used to, but I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to read it and take a step outside my comfort zone. The prose had a beautifully lyrical, almost poetic feel to it that I appreciated for its ability to draw me into the story and make me feel like I was there with the protagonists. There were only a couple of small trouble spots that I found. One was that there were occasional major jumps in time and/or thought processes with no warning such as a page break which could be a little jarring. The other is that sometimes in the dialog it was hard to figure out who was speaking, at least when those passages first begin. Otherwise, P. O. Box Love was a well-written story. Considering that it was originally penned in Italian and translated to English, I'd say that the translation process was handled very well too. The only reason I didn't mark it higher is that in spite of enjoying the story, I can't honestly say that it was difficult to put down which is the true mark of a keeper for me. However, it was a very pleasant read that was a solid four stars and a surprising winner which has left me open to reading more from Paola Calvetti if any of her other novels are translated to English.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publicist via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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