cover image The Lost Letter

The Lost Letter

Jillian Cantor. Riverhead, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-399-18567-0

Cantor uses a mysterious Austrian stamp of an edelweiss hidden within a church steeple as the subject of her affecting new novel, which unfolds in dual story lines. For what reason was the flower added, after Hitler annexed Austria, to a stamp already in circulation? Why, as Katie Nelson discovers decades later, did her increasingly senile father seek out the stamp, still affixed to an unopened letter? Furthermore, what explains his outburst upon learning that Katie took his collection to appraiser Benjamin Grossman? It’s all about the symbolism of the edelweiss, “an expression of love [and] proof of unusual daring,” and a gentile artist named Kristoff, who lived with his mentor, renowned Jewish engraver Frederick Faber. The Faber family’s Judaism, like the intense faith of Katie’s father, stands in stark contrast to her secular lifestyle in 1989 Los Angeles. As Katie and Benjamin methodically trace the stamp’s history and the letter’s intended recipient, the Berlin Wall is being pulled down. Its destruction is a metaphor for the barriers that fall in the story, walls erected within families and built on secrets, barriers created for emotional self-preservation. Cantor (The Hours Count) integrates her historical research well and effectively harnesses the story’s emotional resonance, slowly building tension before resolving the mystery and converging the two story lines. (June)