One of the “rules” of good fiction writing is that the first sentence ought to grab the reader. As a dedicated rule-breaker on my own path, the first line in Dear Isabelle was especially appealing: “I love to start sentences with ‘and’. It’s so perfect, so easy, so against the rules.” Excellent! Hooked completely by the first line, in the presence of a fellow trail-blazer, it was impossible to put the book down. Emotional thriller Dear Isabelle by new novelist Jessica Swan is fascinating, as long as the reader avoids the epilogue.
The pivotal question is posed: just how do memories work? A cryptic first chapter doesn’t offer much insight, but getting comfortable and dedicating an evening to it just might - although the use of “I remember…” and “I can remember…” that begins all too many paragraphs gets a mite obnoxious if you read it straight through in a single sitting. Might be best to break it up, after all.
The main character, young Isabelle, is all too human: very frail and very, very emotional. It makes one feel the need to fix her hot cocoa with marshmallows and hold her close to keep her safe. Isabelle’s incredible height of six-foot-three along with her bony angular frame has made her painfully shy and self-conscious. She is emotionally clumsy, and her physical fumbles seem to expose this to the world. In her first year of college at a Seattle campus, Isabelle receives continual love and support in the form of phone calls and sappy, long-winded letters and emails from her Londoner boyfriend, James. The constant communication at first helps ease the newness and the distance until their first visit, planned for October. An ugly break-up before that point changes everything. Gradually, Isabelle begins to fear leaving her dorm room - or even answering the phone and checking her email.
The character tells are pretty basic and stereotypical, but they are shared by so many real people that it works in making Jessica Swan’s cast believable and easy to empathize with. Isabelle herself has cloyingly real idiosyncrasies that grow progressively worse as the story moves along: compulsive nail biting, crying under the covers, avoiding calls.
The searching beauty with which Swan describes the Seattle landscape makes anyone who has been there feel homesick to be back in Washington. She captures the many moods of rain there - The Mist, The Drizzle, The Downpour - and although she isn’t clunky enough to come out and blatantly use the rains as a mood agent, it is simply gracefully there, in the mirror of Isabelle’s increasingly troubled mind.
Beyond the story itself, it may simply be the writing I was in love with. “All heads turned towards the door in one big whoosh,” on page 101, describes the acute discomfort in coming late to class. Rambling, detailed side jaunts into memory punctuate Isabelle’s current experiences. It is thoroughly interesting, in the Realm of Novel Land, to see purposeful typos and misspellings left in for the purposes of illustrating a character’s frame of mind. The bulk of the novel narrates Isabelle’s descent into paralyzing fear, and even her troubled fluttering images of sleep are excellent manifestations of her growing unrest and discontent.
Even the sometimes immature and awkward writing suits the character particularly well, whether purposely or accidental. In a different narrative, it might not work. The uneasy clomping back and forth from intuitive description to childish explanations would be distracting. In this? Perfection.
Although woven fluently with mythological and astrological asides, Dear Isabelle is well-grounded in today’s world. The fear and tension is well executed. With the notable exception of the unnecessary muddying of the story in the epilogue, Dear Isabelle is an amazing breakthrough of a novel.