Van Praag is a British author who lives and sets her fictional novels in Cambridge, a university town. Each novel focuses on a building or shop and the people who visit, shop, or run the business. The Lost Art of Letter Writing is the fourth book in the series. Book #1 is The House at the End of Hope Street, Book #2 is The Dress Shop of Dreams, Book #3 is The Witches of Cambridge.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing is a bijou book, a small jewel of escapist fiction with delicate touches of magical realism. The central character, Clara, owns a letter-writing shop. The people who show up at the shop tend to be lost souls. Clara sells them special paper and envelopes, and provides them with special pens to write a necessary letter. It could be a letter to a friend, a relative, or even a dead person. Customers sit at a special letter-writing desk that seems to be charmed with the powers of inspiration and release. The letter-writers get their thoughts and feelings out of their system and can move on.

Clara is curiously incurious about their letters. She walks around Cambridge looking in windows. Sometimes she spots an intriguing person and takes note of their address. When she gets to her shop the next day, she picks out the appropriate paper and pen, sits at the desk and writes an anonymous letter to the person. Her words and thoughts always turns out to be something the person needs to read.

Other characters enter the narrative through Clara's letters, and through a secret cache of old letters that Clara discovers in the attic of her house. In the process of getting the letters translated from Dutch to English, Clara's life is transformed.

This book is a wee treasure of magical realism. The light-handed approach to magic isn't so much about casting spells or zapping enemies. It's about quasi-magical intuitive skills possessed by characters and objects scattered throughout the book. Van Praag creates beautiful characterizations of the people in her story. The reader gets acquainted and is drawn into the action to the point where it's sad when the book ends.

A bit of magic leaks out of the book, too! It sat untouched and unread in the fiction shelves at the local library. I was drawn to it like a magnet, as the author “had me at hello” with that title! The book was published in England in 2017; an American edition will be released in December 2017 (Amazon offers pre-order). I hope to find or acquire the other three books. The delicate touch of magical realism is delectable.

Highly recommended for readers who enjoy heart-warming, character-driven novels.

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Menna van Praag
2017, Allison & Busby Limited.
312 pages, £7.99 pb. Amazon UK
US edition release: December 2017, $12.95 pb.

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